A southern Arkansas company is receiving a $19.9 million low-interest government loan that will enable it to provide broadband service to customers in five counties.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture made the announcement Tuesday in Washington.
Mark Lundy, president of Arkansas Rural Internet Services, said his company will have 21 years to repay the loan at an annual interest rate of 3 percent.
The company is a partnership of South Arkansas Telephone and Ouachita Electric Cooperative.
It serves customers in Dallas, Calhoun, Ouachita, Bradley and Nevada counties.
The money will help build a “fiber-to-the home broadband system,” providing rural Arkansas residents with “enhanced educational and economic opportunities,” the USDA said in its announcement. Roughly 24,500 people live within the company’s “service footprint,” federal officials said. Phone companies in Iowa, Kentucky and New Mexico also will be receiving loans.
In addition, the USDA announced $33 million in grants to boost 15 projects in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, North Dakota, Minnesota and Utah. “In the modern economy, rural broadband is a lifeline to quality of life and economic opportunity,” said Anne Hazlett, the USDA’s assistant secretary for rural development.
The department is “fiercely committed” to expanding “access to e-Connectivity in rural America,” she said. Lundy said the counties he serves have dwindled in recent years as the nation becomes increasingly urbanized.
“We’re losing about 3 percent of our population a year,” and access to high-speed Internet service is necessary if these communities are going to thrive, he said. “We feel that the Internet is as important today as electricity and roads and phone services were back in the ’20s and ’30s,” he said.
Arkansas Rural Internet Services, which is based in Hampton and Camden, already had invested nearly $5 million in high-speed Internet services, Lundy said. The additional money will give the program a jump-start, he said. “It’s really going to be a big kick for us. It’s really let us hit the accelerator pedal and go a lot faster,” he said.
People who relied on dial-up Internet or satellite services will have another option, he said.