Rural provider planning fiber network; Aristotle president says state needs many approaches

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 194 views 

An electric cooperative in Northwest Arkansas is preparing to lay what it calls a 7,000-mile, “future-proof” fiber optics line, but the president and chairman of Aristotle says no technology is future proof and the state needs a blended approach to extend broadband to rural areas.

Mitchell Johnson, president and CEO of Ozarks Electric Cooperative Corporation; Randy Klindt, general manager of its subsidiary, OzarksGo; and Elizabeth Bowles, president of Little Rock-based Aristotle, were among those testifying Friday before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Advanced Communications and Information Technology.

The cooperative, which serves parts of Fayetteville and Springdale and nearby rural areas in Arkansas and Oklahoma, will serve 72,000 homes and businesses with fiber lines capable of one-gigabit service. The project will take six years to complete and make services available to all members, no matter how rural.

The project has two purposes. First, by attaching the fiber to its own poles, it will become part of the cooperative’s “self-healing electric grid,” Johnson said, making it easier to diagnose and fix problems without using line workers while allowing the cooperative to keep up with internet-connected electrical appliances. Meanwhile, it will provide high-speed internet to the cooperative’s customers, saving them $12 million in broadband costs from their current providers, said Klindt.

Klindt said the electric cooperative is positioned to extend rural broadband service because of its experience building out long-term capital projects in areas that are not dense. Projects like this will enable rural Arkansans to keep pace with other areas.

“I’ve been in the broadband business since 1999, and there’s always been a digital divide,” Klindt said.

Johnson and Klindt said that, to attract business and industry, a community needs fiber, which they called “future proof” for 20-30 years because it can handle ever-increasing bandwidth requirements. They also said other cooperatives will be announcing similar projects.

But Elizabeth Bowles, president and chairman of Aristotle, said no technology is future proof and the state needs a blended approach. She said fixed wireless broadband, which transmits data wirelessly from permanent locations, is a better solution in some circumstances because it can achieve high speeds and be deployed cheaper and quicker. She said speed is only one consideration for laying broadband; others include consumer costs and whether providers cap the amount of data that can be consumed.

“It is much more important that we get 10 megs to everybody than one gig to a few,’” she said.

Legislators also heard testimony from Dave Goetz, vice president of government services for health services provider Optum, and Mark Langenfeld, the company’s Arkansas Decision Support project manager.

The two were testifying about a 2015 report by Arkansas Legislative Audit that considered whether the state should create a centralized warehouse where state and local entities would collect and share data. Currently, state and local entities’ data collection efforts are decentralized, a situation that is common to other states.

The two explained some of the benefits of sharing data – for example, identifying mothers at risk for having bad outcomes in pregnancies and using the data to combine acute care with behavioral care. In the latter case, use of the emergency room could indicate that a patient is becoming unstable and that providers need to intervene.