Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bethany Hildebrand was preparing for an interview through Zoom with Talk Business & Politics when an all too frequent problem emerged. Her internet speed was too slow for the Zoom video option and her audio would periodically cut out.
A $6.1 million Arkansas Rural Connect (ARC) Broadband grant was issued in March 2021 to allow Ritter Communications to bring high-speed internet to residents in her city. Part of the agreement was that Ritter would invest $1.8 million to provide high-speed internet access to businesses in Stuttgart. The residential project is complete and work continues on the business side.
At the time of the interview, Hildebrand said she couldn’t wait for her organization to be able to utilize broadband, along with the 304 businesses that are chamber members.
“For us it has been devastating as a chamber and from an economic development perspective,” she said. “We can now see light at the end of the tunnel.”
There are many rural communities throughout the country and in Arkansas that suffer from low internet speeds. It impacts commerce, healthcare options, school during the pandemic, quality of life and other metrics. Among all states, Arkansas ranks 48th in average internet speed, according to Getinternet.com It’s estimated that about 70% of the population has access to internet speeds at 25 Mbps or above which meets the Federal Communications Commission criteria for broadband.
There are many factors that determine why states have faster or slower internet speeds, but one is population density, Ritter Communications CEO Alan Morse told Talk Business & Politics. Major carriers tend to focus on cities, especially those with NFL teams when they expand and upgrade systems, he said. Less money is spent in rural areas and in predominantly rural states such as Arkansas. It had been a problem for several years, but when the pandemic hit, the depth of the issue was exposed, Morse said.
“It was a wakeup call,” he said.
Federal and state government officials recognized this issue had to be addressed as millions of workers and students had to stay home in order to stop the COVID-19 spread. When the $2.2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) was passed it provided billions of dollars for broadband expansion. Last fall, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was passed and it provides billions more to build the infrastructure needed to provide high-speed internet.
Arkansas lawmakers quickly created the ARC program to best use the funds, Morse said. At least $279 million has been distributed since the program started and has been a boon to rural high-speed internet access. Many surrounding states such as Texas, Tennessee, Missouri and others have been slow to utilize federal funding for projects like this, Morse added.
There are many challenges with projects like the one in Stuttgart, Morse said. A transport fiber had to be built from U.S. 40 to the city, for example. One unique problem that has plagued construction projects of all kinds during the last two years is supply chain disruptions, he said. Electronics, fiber, plastic parts, and many other elements used in construction have been difficult to obtain. The availability of contractors has been a significant issue, too, he said.
“It’s been a first-class problem,” he said.
Stuttgart was divided into 45 zones when construction began. Once work in a zone was completed, service was offered. Dividing a town into zones helps get people online faster and if there is a problem in one zone it doesn’t impact other zones, meaning fewer people lose service when there is an issue, he said.
Ritter has been involved in many broadband projects around the state. Morse said he expects more state and federal dollars to be allocated to fix internet speed problems in the coming years, and he hopes some regulations, such as what can be placed on utility poles will be changed. The public-private initiatives are beneficial to citizens and businesses, he said.
“We’ve been grateful and humbled by the response we’ve gotten from the local mayors and county judges,” he said. “We’re proud of the confidence the state has placed in us.”
The problems with internet service in Stuttgart went beyond slow speeds, Hildebrand said. When the service would have issues, it could take up to two weeks for them to get fixed. If it impacted a business, it might be days before the business could do simple things like process credit cards. If a person moved out of a house, the new tenant may not have been able to reconnect into the system because it was saturated beyond its operating capacity. Several businesses wanted to locate in the city but there were times when service couldn’t be offered. Business owners and residents have been repeatedly frustrated by these issues, she added.
“It created a big issue. … There’s no way we could sustain our economy without better internet,” she said.
Ritter completed its residential project in Stuttgart, but when another neighborhood outside the coverage area asked to take part, the company decided to expand and provide services even though it was beyond the scope of the ARC grant, Morse said. During the coming months and years, Morse said he anticipates other projects in rural Arkansas that will mirror what has happened in Stuttgart.
Were there any drawbacks or challenges to this expanded internet process?
“We couldn’t get hooked up quickly enough,” Hildebrand said with a laugh. “They listened to our needs. … This whole process has been seamless. We are thankful. Everything we’ve seen has been positive.”