Tag: "Arkansas"

Posted April 27, 2021 by Maren Machles

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by two representatives from Conway Corp, a municipal utility in Conway, Arkansas to hear about their commitment to providing high quality Internet access to residents over the last four decades. CEO Bret Carroll and Chief Technology Officer Jason Hansen dive into the rich history of Conway Corp, starting with how the utility got into the telecommunications industry in the early 1980s, by acquiring an exclusive city-wide cable franchise agreement and bringing the first city residents online. They describe two upgrade cycles the network has since undergone: one to a hybrid fiber co-ax system in the late 1990s, and another, starting in 2010, to drive fiber deeper into parts of the network to bring gigabit download service to residents.

With the legislative landscape in Arkansas having changed dramatically earlier this year with the passage of S.B. 74, which significantly reduced state barriers to municipal broadband, Carroll and Hansen share the value the Conway Corp network has brought to the community and what they see next on the horizon.

This show is 35 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Transcript coming soon.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index...

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Posted February 10, 2021 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

It’s official. Senate Bill 74 became law last week when Governor Asa Hutchinson signed it, significantly reducing (but not completely removing) barriers to municipal broadband in the state of Arkansas, with both chambers voting unanimously in approval of the legislation. While the legislation doesn’t completely eliminate existing barriers to municipal broadband in the state, we consider it an historic moment and a significant step forward.

The central win in SB 74 is that it allows government entities “to acquire, construct, furnish, or equip facilities for the provision of voice services, data services, broadband services, video services, or wireless telecommunications services” so long as they “partner, contract, or otherwise affiliate with an entity that is experienced in the operation of the facilities,” as well as conduct due diligence, and provide ten-days’ notice and hold a public hearing.

Importantly, it also allows municipalities to issue general obligation bonds or impose special taxes to do so; prior, they could only do so after acquiring third-party funding through grants or loans. Finally, the legislation also expands the emergency provisions clause to include health and public safety operations.

SB 74 was first filed in early January, making its way through the Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development Committee before returning to the floor in the third week of the month. There it was amended once more to remove language expressly permitting municipalities from construction, owning, and operating broadband networks, leaving the law a bit unclear where local authority ends. We, along with the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, take this to mean that municipalities without electric utilities that try build communications facilities to do retail service could run into some legal challenges. On the whole however, SB 74 remains a significant win for municipalities to pursue projects. 

Director of Community Broadband Networks Christopher Mitchell had this to say:

We are excited to see Arkansas encourage more investment in its communities by its communities. Between the electric cooperatives and the potential for community networks and partnerships, local businesses and residents will soon be seeing much better...

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Posted February 2, 2021 by Sean Gonsalves

Chickens, peaches, and college students. Those may be the first things that come to mind if you have ever visited Clarksville, Arkansas – a small town of about 9,200 residents situated at the foot of the Ozarks.

Clarksville’s largest employer is a Tyson poultry facility. Every summer, Clarksville hosts the oldest food festival in the state, the annual Johnson County Peach Festival (which was cancelled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic). And, just two blocks north of downtown Clarksville is The University of the Ozarks, which gives Clarksville a bit of that college town flavor.  

But, if you ask Clarksville Connected Utilities (CCU) Business Development Director Barry Sellers, he will tell you: “the biggest thing we have [in Clarksville] is this fiber network. That’s why we put up a billboard right off I-40 that says: ‘Clarksville is Arkansas’ first two gig city.’ I get calls weekly asking if it’s true.”

Yes, it’s true. Last summer CCU began the last step of a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) build-out with the project already nearing completion.

“We are starting to light people up, about 200 so far. We should be able to have 1,000 customers lit up and being served before end of 2021,” CCU GM John Lester told us last week, adding that they have a 30% take-rate so far and are hopeful that as many 50% of the city’s 4,300 potential residential and business customers will sign up for service within the next 3 to 4 years.

Birth of a Network

It was in 2013 that CCU operators were looking for a way to provide better connectivity for its utility operations and its Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, which monitors and manages its utility infrastructure. After studying what kind of network to put in place, CCU found that a fiber network would be the best fit.

“What made the most sense was to build a fiber network and in 2015 we built our core network,” Lester said. “We lit up our SCADA network and now we can literally run our entire water system from a smartphone.”

But what was really smart is that CCU administrators were thinking beyond simply enhancing the town’s utility operations and envisioned how the network could serve residents in other ways by building a FTTP network to...

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Posted January 26, 2021 by Sean Gonsalves

Conway is right in the middle – in the middle of Arkansas with its utility company, Conway Corp, in the middle of beefing up its broadband network.

In this city of 66,000 – home to the information technology company Acxiom Corporation and three colleges – residents and businesses have long relied on Conway Corp for more than just electricity since the utility first launched its cable and Internet service in 1997.

Conway Corp, which has been Conway’s electric utility for the past 90 years, has a unique relationship with the city’s government. “We are different in the way we are set up as compared to many other municipal networks. We are set up as a non-profit. We lease the network and operate it on behalf of the city,” explained Conway Corp Chief Marketing Officer Crystal Kemp.

At the heart of the utility’s network management has been the on-going work to stay ahead of the curve.

Prepared for the Pandemic

“When we launched Internet services in 1997, upstream capacity wasn’t a concern and systems were built with the average homes (and) businesses per geographic area, or node, at 500. Today those numbers are less than 95 per node. That’s been achieved through physical changes in the network and changes in our engineering practices,” Conway Corp’s Chief Technology Officer Jason Hansen told us last week. 

Upgrades to the Hybrid-Fiber-Coax (HFC) network began to take shape in 2019 with the deployment of DOCSIS 3.1, allowing Conway Corp to double its downstream capacity. They also began upgrading equipment that paved the way for expanded use of the RF (Radio Frequency) spectrum to boost the network’s bandwidth. As of December 2020, about 50 percent of the upstream upgrade work had been completed with the remainder expected to be finished by the summer of 2021.

Currently, Conway Corp has 21,608 Internet service customers, which translates into a take-rate of 72% on the residential side and over 50% on the business side. AT&T operates its gigabit service in town, but there are no other traditional citywide cable systems in operation in the area.

The network upgrade, which began in earnest in 2019, turned out to be prescient planning as the emerging COVID-...

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Posted January 15, 2021 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

On Monday, a new bill introduced into the Arkansas State Legislature has the potential, if passed, to remove almost all existing barriers to municipal broadband in the state. SB 74 was introduced in the 93rd General Assembly, Regular Session 2021 by State Senators Breanne Davis and Ricky Hill and their counterparts Representatives Brian Evans and Deann Vaught. 

The legislation would substantially amend the state’s Telecommunications Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, which in most scenarios bans government entities from building and owning networks and delivering services to residents in pursuit of promoting competition and bringing Internet access to unconnected parts of the state.

SB 74 keeps an existing ban on providing basic local exchange service in place (i.e. telephone), but otherwise allows municipalities to build, buy, and operate network infrastructure to deliver digital voice, broadband, data, and wireless telecommunications service to anyone in the state. 

Slow Progress in Recent Years

Currently in Arkansas, municipalities are allowed to build or partner with private companies to build broadband infrastructure, but only if they acquire a grant or loan to do so and only do so in unserved areas. When policy veterans last commented on these particulars of the legislative landscape in 2019, they were worried that such geographic and financing restrictions would effectively preclude new networks, and they were right. 

SB 74 eliminates these two restrictions, which represents a significant step forward. It also adds consolidated utility districts to the list of eligible entities, removes the requirement to file a public notice, and dramatically expands the emergency services clause to include healthcare services, education, and “other essential services.”

This is not the first time State Senator Davis and fellow lawmakers have attempted to fix the state’s broken regulatory environment. In early 2019, SB 150 sought to do many of the same things, but in the end was altered by amendments such that it only allowed government entities to deploy broadband in unserved areas and only if they received...

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Posted January 4, 2021 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

A host of cities and counties in Arkansas are about to get a major broadband boost thanks to local officials taking steps to act on a grant program deployed by the state last year. Borne out of the state’s 2020 1st Extraordinary Session at the end of March 2020 in response to the Covid 19 pandemic, the new Rural Broadband I.D. Expenses Trust Fund Grant Program will disburse $2 million in funds divided into 30 one-time grants of $75,000 each to towns, cities, and counties to tackle the digital divide in the Toothpick State. The program is financed via Arkansas’ Restricted Reserve Fund with money given to the state by the CARES Act, and is administered by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Institute for Digital Health & Innovation. And while an array of projects have been awarded funds, money remains available and applications are being accepted on a rolling basis for those who have yet to take advantage.

A Win for Local Self-Reliance and Increasing Competition

The program is expressly designed to bridge the gap for communities that want to begin to improve local Internet access but are stymied by a necessary first step: paying for those economic, design, and feasibility analyses which require pulling together the wide range of options available in the context of local conditions. That’s where this program comes in, according to Rachel Ott, the UAMS Institute’s for Digital Health and Innovation Grant Director. Communities can use the work produced to apply for federal grants down the road, including the recently concluded Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program, funds from the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, and any other forthcoming federal funding programs. 

Cities, towns, counties, and unincorporated communities are all eligible to apply. Non-profits and for-profit entities are also eligible to apply, but only in unincorporated communities. If they want to undertake projects in cities or towns, they are required to...

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Posted December 22, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

The cities of Sherwood, Tull and Ward, Little River and Perry counties, the Eagle Ridge Property Owners Association in Pulaski County, and Kick Start Sheridan all got state grants to study broadband in pursuit of building infrastructure to create competition, encourage economic development, and bring Internet access to the unserved. It's part of the Rural Broadband ID grants program, which is seeing lots of activity since August.

Posted November 12, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

OzarksGo, the fober subsidiary of the Arkansas-based Ozarks Electric Cooperative, has connected its 20,000th subscriber. It plans to bring its fiber service to every user in its electric footprint by the end of 2021.

Posted October 8, 2020 by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

All across the country, municipal networks, cooperatives, and cities have been putting in extra effort to make sure that Americans have the fast, affordable, reliable Internet access they need to conduct their lives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

AT&T has decided to take another route. A USA Today report last week revealed that the company has stopped making connections to users subscribing to its ADSL Internet as of October 1st. Anyone calling the company to set up new service is being told that no new accounts are being accepted. 

The decision comes right as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance has released a report detailing that only 28% of AT&T’s territory can get fiber from the company. AT&T has deliberately focused investment in more urban areas of higher income. From the report:

The analysis of AT&T’s network reveals that the company is prioritizing network upgrades to wealthier areas, and leaving lower income communities with outdated technologies. Across the country, the median income for households with fiber available is 34 percent higher than in areas with DSL only — $60,969 compared to $45,500. 

The Deep South Hit Hardest

As of today, it looks like the most conservative number of those affected by the decision will be about 80,000 households that have no other option. Our analysis using the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Form 477 data shows that the Deep South will be hit the hardest (see table at the bottom of the page). 

Collectively it means more than 207,000 Americans who, if disconnected, will have no option for Internet aside from their mobile devices or satellite service. The number of Americans affected by the decision but which have additional wireline options is higher: roughly 2.2 million American households nationwide subscribe to the service (see map, below).  

At this point the decision seems only to affect those subscribing to the company’s ADSL service. Those subscribing to ADSL2 and asymmetric VDSL won’...

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Posted May 19, 2020 by Katie Kienbaum

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic pushed schools online, rural cooperatives and other local broadband providers have been coming up with innovative ways to connect students during this difficult time. Ozarks Electric Cooperative, with its broadband subsidiary OzarksGo, is one of the co-ops that caught our eye over the past few weeks with its creative solution.

This week, Christopher speaks with Steven Bandy, General Manager of OzarksGo, about the history of the co-op's fiber network and its new efforts to expand broadband access during the pandemic. They discuss the beginnings of Ozarks Electric's Fiber-to-the-Home network and the co-op's plan to connect all of its members in growing Arkansas and Oklahoma communities. OzarksGo has even expanded into a nearby city where it doesn't offer electric service after seeing that the community needed better quality connectivity. Co-op members are extremely enthusasitc about the co-op's fiber network, and Steven explains how people moving to the area target the Ozarks Electric service territory in their home search.

Christopher and Steven also talk about the effects of the pandemic on the co-op's fiber network, which has seen an increase in interest. Steven shares how the cooperative is partnering with a local school district to connect Wi-Fi hotspots on busses and in community buildings with fiber optic backhaul. In addition to bringing broadband access to students in response to Covid-19, OzarksGo has also increased speeds at no cost to subscribers.

This show is 19 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice ...

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