The state’s new broadband director, Glen Howie, has been on the job for a little over a month and he’s already gauging where Arkansas can excel even further with Internet connectivity. Howie, who comes to Arkansas from Louisiana, says the state has a “great story to tell.”
“Since 2020, the [broadband] office has awarded $392 million in grants, which is fantastic. That’s actually a number that would lead a lot of states and lead the nation in the amount that we’ve given out. But moving forward, we have to do more than that,” he said.
Howie outlines three pillars for broadband expansion: infrastructure, affordability, and digital literacy, or knowing what can be done with affordable broadband.
“When I’m on the road and I’m talking with folks and, I’ve said this from the very beginning, we can make Arkansas the most wired state in the country with fiber running to every single home and business across the state. But if our Arkansans can’t afford it, that’s a problem. Likewise, we can run the fiber, we can make it free, but if Arkansans don’t possess the digital literacy skills that they need to properly use the internet and computer and devices, or simply don’t understand the value that it can create for their lives and truly impact them, we need to work on that as well.”
A recent broadband study commissioned by the state legislature discovered that there are approximately 110,000 households in Arkansas that lack true broadband. Officials estimate it may cost as much as $600 million to connect those homes. Howie says the state is expected to receive about $1.2 billion for broadband purposes from the federal government in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act [IIJA].
Roughly $600 million can be used to wire those more remote households, but Howie says the state needs to be innovative on what to do with the other half of the funding. Affordability and digital literacy are likely to be the recipients, and Howie suggests a state fund to make broadband more affordable to consumers may be key.
“Affordability is a very complex issue, right?… We can’t set prices, that would go against the law and that’s undoable, so you look at the sort of unique things that you can do. When we run our grant programs and grant applications, moving forward, you’re going to notice that there will be an affordability component of a pricing structure and scoring metrics that we’ll use. So, as applications are graded and scored and ranked against each other, on paper, they should be able to compete against each other, to bring down their prices, to gain more points in their applications, which will then be more likely to get funded,” he said.
“I think when you look at trying to be innovative and a thought leader in the country on this issue, I like the idea of an affordability trust fund that would be on top of the federal affordable connectivity program,” Howie said, in reference to a federal program that subsidizes about $30 per month for qualified Internet customers.
“It may be possible to do an [Arkansas] affordability trust fund with some of the funds that we will receive from the federal government as a portion of the IIJA infrastructure bill,” he added.
You can watch Howie’s full interview in the video below.