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Arkansas commerce secretary says director needed to help oversee broadband expansion

Michael Hibblen
Arkansas has about 110,000 homes that need help getting access to broadband.

The Arkansas Department of Commerce is planning to hire a director for its office overseeing the expansion of high-speed internet service.

The legislative Uniform Personnel Classification and Compensation subcommittee last week approved creating the position and giving the Commerce Department the authority to pay a salary up to $200,000 a year.

In an interview, Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said the department is not advertising the maximum for the position, instead the amount appropriated by the Legislature. According to a report from a legislative subcommittee, $149,862 to $181,500 was appropriated for the position.

After receiving recommendations from the Broadband Development Group (BDG) on how to expand online capacity in the state, Preston says it is important to hire a director to help oversee the implementation.

“We need to hire some additional staff to evaluate the proposals coming in. We’ve done a lot of work in the past few years, but we have a lot of work left to do,” Preston said. “We want to be able to bring in one person that can help quarterback this and see this through. It’s going to be a big role with responsibility, and one that’s definitely needed in the state.”

Currently the office has two full-time employees, along with administrative support staff. Preston said he would like to expand the office to eventually have five full-time employees. The department also contracts engineering work to UAMS and he said will continue to do so.

BDG’s report noted federal and state funding will be needed to make sure providers can maintain a profit for the 110,000 homes that don’t receive federal subsidies. This could cost slightly more than half a billion dollars.

Tom Flak, a consultant with BDG, said at a forum last week in Benton that Arkansas could potentially receive as much as $1 billion from the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law by President Joe Biden last fall, which could help subsidize broadband coverage of the 110,000 households.

In addition to knowing how to set up broadband, Preston says the department will look for someone with strong communication skills.

“But also someone who’s good at working with the public, interfacing with mayors, county judges and can go out and be a spokesperson for broadband in the state of Arkansas,” Preston said.

With the amount of moving parts involved, Preston said the director will be needed as a point of contact.

“There’s a lot of internet service providers throughout the state, there’s rural co-ops and a lot of players who are involved in this looking to help build out the state,” Preston said.

Preston said the new director won’t be temporary and will be in place even after the recommendations from BDG are implemented.

“This is ongoing and we want to build this broadband as quickly as we can, but there’s some rural digital opportunity fund that’ll be coming down through the FCC that’s still six to eight years away,” Preston said. “We’ll be continuing to work with that. There’s money through the infrastructure bill, there’s more through ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] that’s going to help us build this out, but we’re always looking to improve.”

Preston says some candidates have already submitted applications and there have been a few from out-of-state.

Ronak Patel was a reporter for KUAR News focusing on state and local government.
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