It seems nearly every day that I hear about the need to improve our state’s broadband infrastructure – especially in rural counties like the ones I represent.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Though it may have seemed like a luxury a decade ago, high-speed wired and wireless internet is now table-stakes for participation in our increasingly digital society. Whether it helps small businesses reach potential customers across the country and globe or allows farmers to take advantage of new precision agriculture technologies, affordable access to high-speed broadband is a necessary component of how we work and play. And as the Chair of the Arkansas House Committee on Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development, taking every step necessary to close the rural digital divide has been and remains a top priority of mine.
Let’s start with the bad news: We’ve got a way to go. Broadband coverage can be somewhat tough to measure, but telecommunications research outfit BroadbandNow estimates that only 69% of Arkansans have access to broadband – a figure that puts us in the bottom 5 of all states.
The good news is we’re making progress: The state’s initiative to bring new high-speed internet offerings to rural Arkansans is paying major dividends. Since its launch two years ago, the Arkansas Rural Connect program has awarded a full $279 million in grants that will help internet providers build new infrastructure in 76 towns across the state.
The program requires providers to build out so-called “symmetrical” connections, which means Arkansans will enjoy speedy uploads in addition to speedy downloads – a requirement for those looking to use their connections for more cutting-edge work and play, like hosting a video stream. And this program doesn’t show any signs of slowing down: Governor Hutchinson just last month set a goal of awarding another quarter-of-a-billion dollars in grants as part of AR Rural Connect – a lofty objective I applaud. Simply put, more investments into programs like these at both the state and federal level will finally make the rural digital divide a thing of the past.
But to make even more headway on broadband buildout, the private sector must be a part of the solution too. I was particularly pleased to read reports last week raising the prospect of a merger between Windstream, a prominent broadband provider based in Little Rock, and Uniti, a company with an extensive fiber network that covers much of the country. This deal would reportedly advance the buildout of broadband to as many one million more households across Windstream’s footprint, which – in addition to helping close the digital divide – would also require the company to add new jobs, Windstream’s CEO said.
In rural districts like mine, service has historically lacked because far too often there is only one provider. But a combined Windstream and Uniti would bring increased competition to the cable companies that often dominate the broadband market. More choice for consumers is likely to spur improved service from providers, including faster speeds and better bang-for-your buck. And at a fundamental level, it’s good for taxpayers, since public funding for broadband deployment goes farther and is used most efficiently when it’s coupled with private investment too.
In the coming years, high-speed internet is likely to be even more than a necessary tool for doing your job or watching a game. It will be a lifeline – the conduit by which we will attend class or receive health care.
It will certainly take more than these two initiatives to ensure that every Arkansan has access to affordable broadband, but I’m heartened we’re on the right path. We should leave no stone unturned.
Editor’s note: State Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, is the chairperson of the House Committee on Agriculture, Forestry & Economic Development. The opinions expressed are those of the author.