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Fort Smith/Fayetteville News | 5newsonline KFSM 5NEWS | Get the local news and weather where you live from 5NEWS. Covering Fort Smith, Fayetteville, Bentonville, and all of Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley.

Lawmakers applaud grant to extend high-speed internet access in rural Arkansas

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, many rural school districts in our area have been worried about the lack of high-speed internet access for students.

OZARK, Ark. — Since the coronavirus pandemic began, many rural school districts in our area have been worried about the lack of high-speed internet access. It's a tool teachers need to keep kids on track in a virtual learning environment. 

Senator John Boozman and Congressman Bruce Westerman joined Arkansas Valley Electric in Ozark Friday (Sept. 18) as they were awarded a 151 million dollar grant. They're partnering with Virtual Wave Connect to bring broadband internet across the state of Arkansas and parts of Oklahoma. 

"There's a big willingness in Congress to provide the funding through lots of different entities. The Department of Agriculture was involved, the Federal Communications Commission was involved, the list goes on and on," said Senator Boozman.

The Ozark School superintendent says when classes went virtual back in the spring, 20% of Ozark students did not have access to online learning and he hopes the broadband project will cut this in half.

"It gets thrown into our lap, even more, when schools are in situations like we're in last spring when we tried to go all remote and offsite, it presented even more challenges for education, so this is going to be a great bridge," said Jim Ford, the Ozark School Superintendent.

The service will include smart grid technology that'll be able to detect when internet services go down. If a powerline gets knocked down, for example, the grid will be able to pinpoint the damages to get it fixed faster. 

"High-speed broadband is the infrastructure we need for businesses, its necessary for education, and the pandemic has put an exclamation point on that," said Congressman Bruce Westerman. 

Valley Electric officials say the smart grid system will encompass 6500 miles of land through 14 counties in Western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma. 

Valley Electric crews will start laying cables to those 14 counties as soon as possible, they hope the whole project will be complete by 2024.