Jamie Farrell, General Manager of South Central Connect and Vice President of Technology for South Central Electrical Cooperative said SCC now has 6,000 subscribers in its service area. That includes households in Clark, Hot Spring, Pike, Montgomery, Howard and Nevada counties. Drew Schaeffer, Vice President of Administration for both South Central Electric Cooperative and SCC added that for zones in Prescott and in the towns south of it, splicing and testing is now occurring, and the hope is to begin servicing homes by mid-September or “worst-case scenario October 1st.”
Prescott-Nevada County Economic Development Director Mary Godwin asked Schaeffer to address the rumor mill about why some areas are chosen over others as broadband infrastructure is built out. Farrell said a number of factors determined this. Priority is given to households that are already customers of South Central Electric, to those living in rural areas as opposed to cities that may already be served by other services including Cablelynx in Prescott. Proximity to the plant or to I-30 can also be a factor.
If you want to sign up with South Central, Jamie Farrell advises you to go to South Central’s service map website, enter your address in the field at left and see whether your location is included in SCC’s service area. Even if your address is shown as not being in a coverage zone, Schaeffer said, that does not mean the service is not currently doing work toward connecting the households in that zone.
Public Relations Director for SCC, Shelby Tucker said entering your address does not commit you to the service but should you wish to be notified whether services will be available in your area in the future, you can sign up as interested in being connected.
The Mayor of Bluff City, Pamela Purifoy, suggested that South Central Connect inform local officials about plans to work in private citizens’ yards. She said many of her constituents had been puzzled about the contracting crews digging trenches and installing lines in their lawns, and became concerned about their property values decreasing. This had even resulted in the sheriff being called multiple times.
Schaeffer said he appreciated Purifoy’s feedback: “This is going to encourage us to all go back and do something so we can better communicate that to the current and future customers.”
Purifoy explained that by March and April as customers, including Purifoy, began to receive services, the issue was worked out and “my service has been excellent,” including customer service employees she had communicated with once service was being connected. She also said she had heard some complaints about a recent price increase.
Tucker responded that the company is still learning how to inform people about what the connection work entailed and invited Purifoy to suggest any area officials that Tucker needed to reach out to. The price increase Tucker called minimal and said it was based on a change to the way customers were being charged for their modems. That charge is now enfolded into the cost of the service itself and is not a separate charge.
Charlotte Coleman of Rosston said she had seen similar puzzlement in her area about the contractors working in citizens’ yards but had worked to get the community informed about it. Farrell said because of the requirements of state grants it is receiving South Central would be working to complete projects in the town of Gurdon, and the counties of Hot Springs, Montgomery and Garland before finishing up in Rosston.
Mayor William Warlow of Cale said most households that want the service have been connected but a few still wonder when they’ll be gotten to. Schaeffer said some households on the outskirts of Cale were not yet able to get service.
After a half-hour of hearing from and asking questions of South Central Connect, the meeting attendees next got the chance to hear a report from Cablelynx and the chance to ask questions of its representatives. The company’s Central Arkansas Vice President Chuck Launius explained that its parent company WEHCO Media has been in existence for 123 years, owning the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and other enterprises. He said his father had worked for WEHCO for 40 years. He then turned to his report on Cablelynx.
He said the company will receive grants at the end of this year and beginning of 2024 from the Arkansas Department of Commerce to expand broadband access to Nevada and Hempstead Counties. The Department of Commerce and the Arkansas Broadband Office would choose where infrastructure will be built to connect more homes. Cablelynx has received grants in four phases of funding, Launius said, “And so far I’ve been awarded grants in three” which total $20 million. These funds come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by the Biden administration through Congress and signed in November 2021.
The grant amounts for phase five will total about $1.4 billion, Launius said. Companies will be allowed to submit bids and then will be allotted areas of Arkansas in which to begin to build infrastructure. The grants will require a 25 percent match from the companies. In Nevada County the building of lines would account for four or five homes per mile, while in the past companies needed to connect 15 homes per mile for the investment to be profitable. The state’s goal, Launius said, is to have all households in the state able to connect to broadband by 2028.
Launius commented that Nevada County is “blessed with two good operators” and that in the next six months a lot of action will take place as companies try to show the state they can be counted on to the work of the next phase. He forecast that two years from now, “the entire county should be serviced.”
Veterans, participants in school lunch programs, the disabled and households making below a certain income may be able to get internet service for free or at a reduced price through the Affordable Connectivity Program, Launius said.
In other business, the minutes from the previous meeting on July 21 were approved. Hines Trucking Information Technology Danny Stewart presented a spreadsheet with information from each internet service provider in the county. Only three provide broadband service (South Central Connect, Cablelynx and Walnut Hill Communications).
Stewart also announced the creation of a website for the Nevada County Broadband Committee. He said he envisions the website as a way future shoppers for internet service can learn from one place what services in the area are offered and make arrangements to be connected. Reyenga said a survey will eventually be placed on the site so that he can be made aware of deficits in broadband coverage.
Godwin recommended committee members use links she has sent by email to attend Zoom meetings of the Arkansas Broadband Office. Reyenga said he had learned some valuable information about what other counties were doing in this field.
The next meeting was set for September 15th at the Nevada County Library meeting room at 10:00 a.m. Godwin said other service providers will be attending that meeting.