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Jefferson County grant bringing faster broadband access to rural Arkansas

Following a $5.2 million grant from the Arkansas Department of Commerce, officials in Jefferson County are working to bring reliable internet to the community.

PINE BLUFF, Ark. — A new grant from the Department of Commerce will put a stop to an issue impacting thousands of people in the southern part of the state. 

Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson announced Wednesday that the county will receive $5.2 million from the Arkansas Department of Commerce Broadband Office. It's all a part of the Arkansas Rural Connect (ARC) grant program.

"What broadband does for Jefferson County is it makes us us much more efficient. It will help our students," said Robinson.

These are students who, at one point during the pandemic, left the classroom to go learn virtually with little to no broadband access at home.

"I've heard of stories from parents where they had to pull into the parking lot of McDonald's and use their Wi Fi," Dr. Andrew Curry, superintendent of Watson Chapel School District said.

Curry continued, and mentioned that there's a divide in the state as far as reliable internet goes.

"There's a digital divide right now, between those that have access to high speed internet," Curry said.

New funding from ARC will speed up slow internet in certain areas of Jefferson County.

According to Robinson, the initial grant totaled about $5.2 million.

Pine Bluff Cable also chipped in nearly $3 million.

In total, Robinson said the county will have $8.2 million dollars that will go to the community.

There are at least four phases in this project.

The first will be in the Sulphur Springs area, which is set to be completed by November.

The second will be in the Pinebergen area, with the planned completion of the project being for December.

The third and fourth areas will be the east area of Pine Bluff and Island Harbor Estates, respectively. That area will have faster broadband access by 2023.

Once all of phases are complete, at least 1,880 homes will be positively impacted. 

Robinson said the issue has plagued the county for years but officials kept running into the same hurdle.

"Well, let's face the cost. If we were trying to do this on our own, we would not have been able to afford to do this," Robinson said.

One of his biggest focuses with this project is making sure students in the county have reliable internet.

Watson Chapel has about 2,000 students enrolled in the district and about 500 of those students will benefit from this new project, according Dr. Guess. 

"It's going to allow some of those parents that had those difficulties to be able to tap into a good high speed internet for their students," Dr. Curry said.

Judge Robinson also said he is talking with other towns like Humphrey, Wabbaseka, and Altheimer to see how Jefferson County can provide services to those underserved communities. 

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