AMPed Up Technology

Technology: Disconnected

June/July 2016 Issue

Arkansas ranks 48th in access to broadband, and,
while reasons for the lag abound, lawmakers
are working to get more residents online.

Arkansas broadband is way behind, and there are a lot of theories as to why.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission raised the definition of high-speed internet to 25 megabits of data per second (Mbps). And, 58.5 percent of Arkansans — 1.3 million people — do not have access to that speed, according to BroadbandNow, an organization that tracks national broadband internet access.

Arkansas ranks 48th in access to broadband — the cities with the fastest internet access are all in the northwestern part of the state, according to BroadbandNow. Forty-nine percent of Arkansas has broadband coverage; 26 percent of the population is underserved.

Last year, Arkansas House Speaker Jeremy Gillam named Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, the head of an effort to draft a plan that will ensure every home, business and school in the state has access to broadband.

“We are engaged in study right now to determine what coverage already exists, what the gaps are, what the challenges are to achieve full coverage, and then to determine the best way the government can be helpful in devising a solution,” Sabin told AMP.

The obstacles are many. There’s the state’s economy; per capita gross domestic product in Arkansas is also 48th in the country. There’s Arkansas’ geography.

“We have vast expanses of flatland in the Delta,” Sabin said. “We have mountains in the northwest and north-central part of the state, and rugged terrain in general. Trying to get coverage to every citizen and business across remote areas and urban centers can be challenging.”

But, at the same time, he said, these factors are not a good excuse for the slow growth. After all, other states with similar barriers are doing better. It’ll be up to the broadband initiative effort he’s overseeing to figure out how to emulate them, and they need to have legislation ready for the start of the 2017 regular session. Sabin drops some hints on how that legislation will look.

“I think it’s going to be a combination of existing infrastructure, new infrastructure, different providers, different methods of delivering broadband internet,” he said. “We’re going to have to consider every possible way to bring this service across the state in the most efficient and inexpensive way possible.”

Among the bright points, the technology is becoming less expensive; also, Sabin said, “I think there’s a true understanding and appreciation of the need to do this.” Internet Service Providers, he said, “want to be part of the solution, and they’ve certainly indicated their willingness to work with the government to define that solution.”

Confronting Limited Access

“We’re expanding and enhancing our wireless and wireline IP-broadband networks to support the growing demand for high-speed internet access and new mobile, app and cloud services,” said Ed Drilling, president of AT&T Arkansas. “We are also working with the FCC and others in our industry to foster a dialogue and continue the incremental transition to IP-networks.”

Drilling said AT&T invested nearly $600 million from 2012-14 in Arkansas to expand availability of and enhance access to the internet. He said the FCC and National Telecommunications & Information Administration report cards that show Arkansas behind most other states “are based on an incomplete picture of what is currently available,” and although no one provider services all of Arkansas, “through the combined assets of all the providers across the state, there is ample broadband capacity to meet the needs of our citizens.”

Drilling said wireless penetration in Arkansas is among the highest in the nation.

“Our wireless investment has brought AT&T’s mobile broadband network to 99.7 percent of Arkansas residents,” he said via email.

In addition, AT&T has announced plans to participate in the second phase of the FCC’s Connect America Fund program to expand connectivity in parts of Arkansas where it is cost prohibitive to enhance the company’s wireline network. The plan is to expand high-speed internet service in Arkansas over six years to reach about 52,000 rural homes and businesses with speeds of at least 10 Mbps.

Here and now, though, Sabin said, “I hear from citizens all the time who live in places where you would expect broadband service to be available, and these people can afford it if it were available, but it’s not there. Whether we’re talking about our urban areas or our remote rural areas, we have a problem with accessibility, we have a problem with affordability, and we also have a problem with quality.”

Some would argue the federal government needs to do more.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, used the opportunity of an April 5 hearing on the White House’s fiscal 2017 spending proposal to confront FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

“Many people in Arkansas think the FCC has forgotten about rural America,” Boozman said. “Transferring money away from broadband deployment to offset agency spending in D.C. aggravates that all-too-real perception.”

“I don’t know if the government is part of the problem,” Sabin said, “because there are so many different programs that the federal government sponsors that we don’t take advantage of here in Arkansas.”

He said the solution will probably not be fully government driven, but rather reliant upon existing infrastructure.


Broadband Across the South

U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service (RUS) Administrator Brandon McBride doesn’t think the problem is unique to Arkansas.

“In the South, states face generally the same challenges,” McBride said. “You have more rural areas, which makes it more expensive to build out and connect those residents.”

He noted that the FCC says of the 34 million Americans with no access to high-speed fixed broadband, most are in rural areas; 39 percent of rural residents lack such access.

McBride said RUS has invested about $150 million in broadband service in Arkansas since 2009. Two programs target rural areas: Community Connect Grants for communities that do not have internet service, and Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants to connect rural health care providers and schools with urban hospitals, community colleges and universities.

The big investment came through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which sank $3 billion through RUS into expanding broadband access. More than $6.1 million found its way to Connect Arkansas, part of the state’s broadband initiative. The head of the project, Sam Walls III, said their focus was getting more Arkansans on the net.

“We were very lightly involved in conversations about speed,” Walls told AMP. “For us, our mission was to promote adoption, and trying to get more.”

The initiative operated until 2015, when money from ARRA and the state ran out.

“If you’ll look at broadband adoption rates when we started and toward the end, certainly Arkansas had moved up the rankings,” Walls said. “We can’t take all credit for that, but I certainly think we contributed to that improvement.”

Walls said the group started with surveys to find out why people were not adopting the internet, and used their findings to apply for the grants. Some survey respondents said their service was slow or unreliable, or even nonexistent. Connect created a broadband map, updated regularly, that showed which service providers were in each area, and what speeds were available.

They then targeted specific groups. Kids got computer programs, classes with their parents on internet safety, and even their own refurbished computers. The surveys also showed older people were intimidated by the internet, so Connect set up courses designed to help them get comfortable and identified their interests in using the technology. There were also workshops for entrepreneurs on using the internet to expand their businesses, and Connect worked with the state’s libraries to arrange courses on topics of interest.

“The whole idea was, everyone has a different need,” Walls said, “and what would motivate them to get on the internet, to get past whatever reluctance was there.”

Walls believes the path to improving Arkansas’ coverage and service lies in a partnership between the government and the service providers who have to satisfy their partners or shareholders. He said some people believe the free market should sort it out, and others liken the internet to the roads that are government’s responsibility. He thinks the answer is somewhere in the middle, as it was during the birth of rural electricity nearly a century ago.

“There’s probably a framework, using that as a starting point, to some relationship going forward where you would look to the providers to do it, but the state might give some incentives to get them to,” Walls said.

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