The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light a issue that local officials said they have known about for quite some time–the lack of broadband access in rural areas. Hot Spring County Judge Dennis Thornton said while in office this issue has been a big focus, and he is extremely excited to announce that high speed internet access for Hot Spring County residents is in the works. 

“This is, to me, one of the largest things to happen to this county,” Thornton said adding that internet access is just as important as other utilities such as electricity, sewage and water. “It opens the door for industry. It opens the door for people to move here, to want to live here.”

According to a news release from the Federal Communications Commission more than 300,000 Arkansans living in rural areas will soon have access to high-speed broadband as a result of the commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction. 

“This historic auction is great news for the residents of so many rural Arkansas communities, who will get access to high-quality broadband service in areas that for too long have been on the wrong side of the digital divide,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a prepared statement.  “We structured this innovative and groundbreaking auction to prioritize bids for high-speed, low-latency services to deliver the best results for rural Americans, and the results show that this strategy worked.  This auction was the commission’s single largest step ever taken toward delivering digital opportunity to every American and is another key success in our ongoing commitment to universal service.”

Two bidders, Central Arkansas Telephone Cooperative Inc. and Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium won several locations across  Hot Spring County. 

CATC was awarded 1,004 locations and will receive $1,629,931 in support and Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium was award 1,894 locations and $1,915,933 in support. 

Larry Frazier, general manager at CATC, explained the timeline for the process. 

In the coming months, CATC has various requirements to meet and approvals to receive but officials hope to start construction on the expansion as soon as they can. 

They plan to have broadband in all of their new areas by December of 2023; even though under FCC regulations CATC has six years to complete the project.  

With the expansion, individuals living in the CATC service area will have access to up to 1 gigabit of services as well as TV and phone services. Some may also be eligible for discounted telephone service through the Lifeline program. 

Frazier noted that individuals will be members of CATC and will share in patronage capital. 

Individuals living in the areas awarded to the Rural Electric Cooperative Consortium will also have access to 1 gigabit service. 

The only different between the two cooperatives is the CATC lines are buried and the consortium’s lines are aerial, he explained. 

A few small areas in the county were also awarded to a company owned by billionaire Elon Musk. 

“They will be providing low Earth orbit satellites,” Frazier said. 

“Hot Spring County is definitely going to be transformed,” Frazier said. 

Along with areas they were recently awarded, CATC also submitted for a grant last year to serve Donaldson and Bonnerdale. 

In total between 15,000 and 17,500 people will be affected by the expansion, Frazier estimated. 

Thornton said he is extremely excited to see Lono be included in the expansion. 

“It seems like Lono has been left over of so many things for so many years,” Thornton said. “It’s going to be a huge pick me up.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many have learned how important broadband access is “for the family nucleus.”

He mentioned that family have to use internet access for schooling as well as medical appointments. 

People have also learned that antiquated systems can no longer compete with the demand. 

“Because everybody was using the internet so much, some of these systems really failed in a little of areas to provide adequate speed,” Frazier said. 

He also noted that this expansion is a big step for CATC. The cooperative was created in 1951. The cooperative currently has more than 2,800 active accounts. 

“From the very start, it has been very customer oriented providing our members the most advanced technology the industry had,” Frazier said. The cooperative has nine board of directors including three from the Donaldson area and six from Bismarck.  

Thornton commended Frazier and the rest of the board for their hard work during this process. Thornton currently serves on the CATC board of directors. 

More information about the expansion will be posted on the CATC Facebook page. Individuals living in the service area will also receive direct mail soon. 

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