New coalition launches to help close Arkansas’ digital divide

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 621 views 

Bentonville nonprofit Heartland Forward has organized a coalition of more than a dozen Arkansas organizations whose goal is to help expand internet access in the state.

According to a Thursday (July 14) news release, the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition includes the Arkansas Black Mayors Association, Arkansas Community Foundation, Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., Arkansas Farm Bureau, Arkansas Impact Philanthropy, Communities Unlimited, Diamond State Networks, Forward Arkansas, Holman Strategies, Runway Group, University of Arkansas-Department of Communication, University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, Research and Extension, Winrock International and Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.

Collectively, their goal is to help support local efforts and secure federal funding to expand access and ensure high-speed internet is more accessible and affordable across the state.

The group’s first effort is Accelerate Arkansas, a 14-week intensive broadband planning program for communities to leverage incoming federal infrastructure dollars. Heartland Forward developed the program in partnership with the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society in Illinois.

Accelerate Arkansas builds off similar programs Heartland Forward established alongside the Benton Institute and local groups in Illinois and Ohio, called Accelerate Illinois and BroadbandOhio.

The inaugural pilot cohort in Arkansas focuses on east and southeast area of the state — Cleveland County, Elaine, Hughes, Keo and West Memphis. The program begins Thursday (July 14).

“Having access to a high-speed, reliable internet service is crucial for working, learning and living in the 21st century, but too many families across Arkansas simply don’t have the connectivity they need,” Angie Cooper, chief program officer of Heartland Forward, said in a statement. “The Arkansas Connectivity Coalition shares a common purpose of working to close the digital divide and ensure Arkansas is building a future that leverages high-speed internet to improve economic opportunity, education and health outcomes and effective delivery of services.

“We are proud to launch Accelerate Arkansas as our first initiative, a program that has already proven successful in other parts of the heartland–including the states of Illinois and Ohio–in preparing communities to use incoming funding efficiently and effectively to get people connected.”

According to a news release, the program works to prepare communities for establishing and implementing a full-scale broadband connectivity vision.

The Benton Institute will counsel communities and offer structured engagement to identify broadband goals, gather data, understand available funding options and target capital dollars to support implementation.

“Reliable high-speed internet is crucial to the economic vitality of our state,” Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston said in a statement. “From schoolchildren connecting to lesson plans to businesses and industries connecting to get the job done, connectivity is no longer a luxury. For the past eight years, we have worked tirelessly to ensure that Arkansans have the skills necessary to compete — and win — in the global economy. The Arkansas Connectivity Coalition is the latest piece of the puzzle to make that goal a reality.”

Accelerate Arkansas will support local leadership teams in developing broadband visions, and implementation plans for their communities as new infrastructure dollars are made available through state funding and the historic passage of the federal infrastructure program.

The opportunity is made possible through a collaboration between the University of Arkansas, which will coordinate survey research and oversee administrative support, and a series of organizations across the state that will provide technical support to cohort teams. These organizations include Communities Unlimited, Winrock International, the Arkansas Black Mayors Association and University of Arkansas-Division of Agriculture, Research and Extension. The Arkansas Community Foundation, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, Diamond State Networks, Forward Arkansas, Heartland Forward and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation are funding the Accelerate program.

Arkansas communities stand to receive a significant amount of funding for broadband infrastructure enhancement, thanks to the recent passage of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure plan. The new coalition hopes community planning support offered through initiatives like Accelerate Arkansas will help even the playing field so that more cities and counties — regardless of size or staffing — can prepare to submit for capital dollars to help transform broadband in their communities.

Heartland Forward convened the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition through its Connecting the Heartland initiative.