Lou McAlister, CEO of Little Rock-based Broadband Development Group, has been tasked by the Arkansas Legislature to help create a master plan for expanding broadband Internet across the state.
Already, hundreds of millions of dollars from federal and state pandemic relief and infrastructure investment funds have been awarded to fiber companies to jump-start hundreds of broadband deployment projects, particularly in rural Arkansas.
McAlister is compiling a variety of data from the U.S. Census and current Internet providers to create a map that shows where broadband exists in certain communities. He estimates that about 90% of the Census and current broadband providers’ data is input and accurate, while the remaining 10% may require physically surveying areas of Arkansas.
Between now and early April, when McAlister will provide a research report to state lawmakers, there will be a number of county-specific meetings. McAlister says by the start of 2022 roughly half of the state’s 75 counties will have had town halls to communicate their broadband needs and desires. Before he is done, all 75 counties will have had forums as part of his effort.
“There are two pieces of the research. One is quantitative data, you know, where do you live? What speed do you have? How much do you pay? Numbers, objective, quantitative data. The other data though is qualitative. How frustrated are you? How angry are you? What happens to your kids? What happens to your business? What happens when you have fiber optic cable running across your yard or across your property, but you don’t have Internet access? Why is that?” McAlister said.
“What these community meetings are really about more than anything else, we can send a form out, a survey out, and people can give us quantitative data all day long. What we like to do is stand there and listen and interview and talk and get feedback from people and find out things like the lady in the Dardanelle library, who’s looking for a job and filing her unemployment benefits because she’s lost her Internet service at home because the $30 a month bill that she thought she had really was a $300 a month bill. And she makes $20,000 a year, she can’t afford that,” he said. “You don’t get that by just looking at spreadsheets and databases and analyzing data. You only get that when you’re standing face-to-face with somebody and talking to them one-on-one. And so that’s primarily why we’re out in the communities.”
McAlister thinks the process to award broadband projects so far has been sufficient, particularly considering where the state started. Moving forward, he expects his report will help make future spending on projects much more efficient.
“The more we move along, the more efficient we need to be and the tighter we need to be, the better we need to be. And so I think that’s kind of where our report comes in. That’s where our work comes in. It’s not that what we’ve done in the past has been bad, is that what we’re going to do in the future is going to be better,” he said.
McAlister also cautioned that Arkansans need to be realistic about how much broadband penetration is possible for rural parts of the state. He noted that when rural telephone service was installed, a 96% percent rate was considered “universal coverage.” That standard may also be necessary for broadband considering there are some extremely remote areas of Arkansas that will be difficult to connect.
“It’s going to be hard to get to some folks, no matter what we do, no matter how much money we have, it’s going to be hard to get to some folks. So will we be able to get to every single solitary address in the state of Arkansas? That’s a very high bar to clear, a very expensive bar to clear. I would say that we’re going to get the vast majority,” he said.
As part of the research for McAlister’s group, Arkansans are encouraged to complete this free online survey.
You can watch his full interview in the video below.