Connect Arkansas Aims To Expand Broadband

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Broadband Internet in Arkansas is set to get a boost in 2009.

The Arkansas Legislature passed Act 604 at its 2007 session, forming Connect Arkansas as a nonprofit organization to promote education about and deployment of broadband service.

Arkansas currently ranks No. 47 among states in broadband deployment and No. 49 in number of adults online. By pushing initiatives to improve broadband access and through education about the benefits of high-speed Internet, Connect Arkansas plans to improve the state’s rankings.

Connect Arkansas, a division of Arkansas Capital Corp. in Little Rock, cites the CSE Freedom Foundation’s estimate that bringing broadband Internet to the entire state could create 8,200 new jobs and add $2.6 billion annually to the Gross State Product.

Arkansas Capital Corp. is a nonprofit business development company founded in 1957 that provides bridge financing to small businesses in the state. Connect Arkansas’ annual funding need is just shy of $3 million, which will be pursued through the legislature appropriations and other venues.

Since 2007, Connect Arkansas has been busy creating an “E-Communities” plan to help educate cities and counties on how to develop digital infrastructure. It has surveyed citizens on their awareness and use of broadband Internet and will present its first map of Arkansas’ broadband infrastructure during the first quarter of 2009 with regular progress updates to follow.

A survey of 608 Arkansans by Connect Arkansas revealed that not only is regular broadband use tied largely to income and location, but that a large-scale education push is needed.

The survey results showed that 51 percent of Arkansans don’t have broadband service, and 29 percent have never even used the Internet at all.

The latter figure is roughly equal to the 30 percent of respondents who said they would not subscribe to broadband service even if it were available to them and the price was affordable.

Arkansans with incomes greater than $50,000 were the heaviest users of broadband, with 54 percent using the Internet multiple times per week.

By contrast, just 20 percent of those with incomes less than $30,000 reported using the Internet more than once per week. The elderly are also infrequent users. Connect Arkansas’ survey showed that of those 29 percent who’d never used the Internet, 47 percent were people over 60. Only 27 percent of Arkansans’ over 60 have broadband subscriptions.

Beyond obvious obstacles like money, Connect Arkansas believes the biggest to overcome is attitude.

Arkansas Capital Corp. CEO C. Sam Walls said Connect Arkansas’ most important mission is, “educating our population and our leadership that [broadband service] is a necessary component of our lives.”

Only by increasing demand will Arkansas draw the millions of dollars in investments from service providers to expand deployment, Walls said.

“Service providers have demonstrated throughout the nation that they are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on their infrastructure when demand is present,” he said.

 

U.S. Lagging, Too

Just as Arkansas lags its peers, the United States falling further behind other nations.

The U.S. ranks 15th of 30 industrialized nations for broadband deployment, or the percent of the population subscribing to broadband. It also trails badly in average download speeds.

According to Speedmatters.org, a project sponsored by the Communications Workers of America, the median Internet download speed in the U.S. during 2008 was 2.3 megabits per second.

Japan’s median speed was 63 mbps, 30 times faster than the U.S. To put that in more comprehensible terms, people in Japan can download an entire movie in two minutes. It can take two hours or more in the U.S.

Of course, the United States has a much larger geography to cover and a less dense population, the same issues facing Arkansas. In South Korea or Japan, where most live in high-rise apartment buildings, wiring high-speed Internet capacity is much easier and costs less.

Speedmatters notes that a U.S. cable modem customer receiving speeds of 3 mbps to 5 mbps can expect to pay $40 to $50 per month. In Japan, a connection of 26 mbps costs around $22, five to eight times faster at half the price.

Around 57 percent of urban and 60 percent of suburban households have broadband service in the U.S., only 38 percent of rural households do.

According to the 2000 census, about 48 percent of Arkansas’ population lives in rural areas, and the state ranks No. 41 in farmers who are online and using computers.

Walls said it’s premature to put a price tag on increasing broadband deployment in Arkansas. First, the state must understand its infrastructure, which is the purpose of Connect Arkansas’ ongoing mapping process, understand its goals and then seek funding through a variety of public or private sources.

The Arkansas legislature has also created the Arkansas Broadband Advisory Council, the Cyber Infrastructure Task Force and the Applied Science and Technology Authority to help develop a comprehensive plan.

“High-speed telecommunications is as critical to connect our regional economies as four-lane highways,” Gov. Mike Beebe said after signing Act 604. “Businesses increasingly rely on the Internet super-highway and need that access to compete worldwide.”

 

Solutions Ahead

The U.S. is the only one of 30 industrialized nations to not have a comprehensive, national broadband deployment strategy, but that should change soon with a new incoming administration led by tech-savvy and BlackBerry-addicted Barack Obama as President.

Obama has pledged to make Internet infrastructure improvements part of his economic stimulus plan, but no firm figures have been released yet. Improving rural access has been a focal point of Obama’s digital strategy.

Walls expects Arkansas to be well-positioned if dollars become available thanks to the leg work it’s already done.

While Arkansas ranks low in many broadband deployment categories — cracking the top half only in public schools access at No. 23 — it does rank highly in at least a couple “new economy” areas.

According to the 2007 New Economy State Index, the state ranks No. 5 in “gazelle” jobs, No. 7 in entrepreneurial activity and No. 22 in economic dynamism.

(“Gazelle” jobs are defined as those at companies with annual sales revenue that has grown 20 percent or more for four straight years as a share of total employment.)

Walls noted that the University of Arkansas system has been developing the Arkansas Education and Research Optical Network (AREON). AERON allows faculty and researchers at the UA to connect to the Internet at speeds 20 times faster on campus and 100 times faster on the off-campus network.

The AERON system is designed to eventually hook into the National LambdaRail. The NLR is a high-speed optical transmission network owned and controlled by the nation’s research community.

The LambdaRail consists of some 15,000 miles of fiber-optic cable, stretching from Massachusetts to Seattle, down to San Diego, across the southern border to Florida and back up the Atlantic coast.

The nearest “node” of the NLR to Arkansas is in Tulsa, marking one of three north-south connections between the two east-west corridors.

Using two of Cisco’s optical electronic systems, the network has a maximum of 40 and 32 wavelengths per fiber pair, respectively.

Each wavelength can support transmission of 10 billion bits per second, but only four wavelengths have been implemented and will be added as needed.

Arkansas has a good model to follow in Kentucky. A group of private and public entities formed Connect Kentucky to create the kind of state broadband map Arkansas has nearly completed.

The map led to community plans to stimulate local demand, boosting broadband deployment in Kentucky from 60 percent to 95 percent.

Computer ownership increased 54 percent, and 54,000 technology-related jobs were created over a three-year period according Connect Kentucky Quarterly.

“The goal of Connect Arkansas is to facilitate that every Arkansans has access to broadband speed Internet within five years and an understanding of how it will impact their lives,” said Walls. “Within 10 years we would like Arkansas to be held up globally as a model of how you get your population on-line and integrate the Internet into their daily lives.”