Population Drain, Education Turns Arkansas Electric Co-op’s Attention to Rural Broadband

The Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative is in the midst of studying the feasibility of building out broadband infrastructure in more rural parts of the state.

by John Lovett, Times Record / June 5, 2018

(TNS) — Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative is looking to bring broadband internet service to more rural areas of Arkansas.

Education, telemedicine, business creation and entertainment are some of the top benefits for the service that is also seen as a potential plug for population drain from rural areas.

Arkansas Valley Electric, founded in 1937 to bring electricity to rural areas, is one of 17 electric cooperatives in the state and provides electricity to about 59,000 households in 10 Arkansas counties. It also serves three Oklahoma counties.

"Education is the No. 1 reason," said Greg Davis, spokesman for Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative. "We hear all the time from teachers in rural areas about the need for it. I know of one lady on the other side of Charleston who drives her children to McDonald's sometimes for them to do their homework."

Davis said the local cooperative has done two feasibility studies and is now in the evaluation process to determine if it will move forward.

Most of the counties served by the Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative are in Arkansas' Fourth District, Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative CEO Al Simpson said. The Fourth District, the largest in the state, is represented in Congress by Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs.

Speaking to employees of the cooperative in Ozark on Monday in a question-and-answer session, Westerman noted the importance of broadband service to rural areas for population retention and job creation.

"A lot of jobs are done on the internet anymore, so you could be in your home out in the country working from home if you had high-speed broadband," Westerman said, noting that most of the rural areas in Arkansas have lost population in the past 10 years.

The 2018 Farm Bill, which remains to be passed, has a provision that would provide $150 million for loans and $150 million in grants to develop more rural broadband service.

The $867 billion Farm Bill did not pass the House two weeks ago because of political conflicts over immigration. Westerman said he is confident the Farm Bill will come back and it would be sent over to the Senate for approval. The Senate is also working on its own version, he added.

At least two other electric cooperatives in Arkansas, including Ozarks Electric Cooperative, currently provided broadband service through fiber optic cables. The Ouachita Electric Cooperative is in a pilot program. The Craighead Electric Cooperative recently announced it would move forward to provide broadband service.

©2018 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.