Expanded access to broadband internet is one of the key development issues in the eight state region that is part of the Delta Regional Authority’s coverage area, new DRA federal co-chairman Chris Caldwell told Talk Business & Politics. There’s no way to quantify how much the infrastructure will cost throughout the region or how it might impact customer rates, but faster internet will be a critical tool for Delta communities trying to survive in a rapidly growing global economy, he said.
“There are huge online workforce opportunities,” Caldwell said. “There’s no silver bullet to solve rural broadband. It’s part of infrastructure. It’s part of business connectivity.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines internet service as “broadband” if it transmits at a speed of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloading and at least three Mbps for uploading, according to the FCC.
A report by the Arkansas Department of Information (DIS) showed the Natural State ranks No. 48 among all states in broadband access. Up to 79.6% of the state’s residents have high-speed internet access. Internet with speeds of up to 100 Mbps is available to 62.8% of the state’s population, while only 7.6% of residents have access to one gigabit of broadband.
There are 124 internet providers in Arkansas and 614,000 Arkansans are without access to a wired connection capable of providing broadband. Another 661,000 state residents have a single provider and another 230,000 don’t have access to any wired provider, the DIS report states.
Urban centers in the state such as Little Rock, Fort Smith and two counties in Northwest Arkansas lead the way in broadband access, according to Broadband Now. Broadband is available to 96% of residents in Pulaski County, 94.8% in Sebastian County, 92% in Washington County and 90.3% in Benton County. Jonesboro, with 86% access, leads all counties in Northeast Arkansas.
Ozark Mountain and Delta counties have the least amount of access, according to Broadband Now. Cleveland County has 0.7% while Newton County only has 0.9%. Stone County has 1% and Prairie County has 7.1%
Broadband costs more and income levels are a factor in what areas have broadband, the DIS report states. In homes were the median income is $35,000 or less, only 13% of homes have high-speed internet, while it’s present in 50% of homes in the $76,000 to $250,000 median income range, according to Pew Research.
During the next 10 years the federal government and private capital partners have committed billions to upgrade high-speed internet systems in rural parts of the country, the report noted. The federal government is expected to spend up $6.5 billion in the coming years through various programs to expand broadband, the FCC reported.
Microsoft unveiled a rural broadband strategy combining private sector capital investments along with public sector support that it says can eliminate the rural broadband gap by July 4, 2022, the report states. In the strategy, Microsoft intends to invest in partnerships with telecommunications providers that will connect 2 million rural Americans to broadband. It announced an initiative to provide digital literacy training to people in rural communities. It launched a new program to stimulate investment through technology licensing. In the report, Microsoft said TV white spaces offer an optimal solution to connect millions of Americans in rural areas to broadband at 50% less than the cost of fixed wireless (4G LTE) technology and 80% less than fiber-to-the-home, the report noted.
Caldwell is still acclimating to his new job, and putting together a rural broadband strategy is among his top goals. There are so many variable factors in different communities across the region that make a “one size fits all” program impossible to formulate, he said. DRA plans to partner with many communities in need of better internet access, and the goal is to make it as affordable as possible for customers. He’s also pulling together a vocational apprenticeship program to spur workforce growth.
“It’s a priority for us,” he said.