LITTLE ROCK -- In the past couple of years Arkansas has made a massive financial commitment to expanding broadband access to all parts of state.
So far $275 million has been approved, and the Legislative Council is set to increase that investment to $400 million when it considers an additional $125 million in broadband proposals at its November meeting.
The investment so far has financed 132 projects that have brought high-speed Internet access to 89,276 households. A total of 213,570 Arkansans live in those households.
The legislature faces several challenges to make sure that the money is spent effectively. It has hired a consultant to develop a master plan to coordinate the "footprint" of each project, similar to how highway projects are connected.
Another challenge requires balancing political and social demands. There are 222,000 households in Arkansas with a yearly income of less than $20,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 91,000 of those households have no Internet subscription at all. They probably could not afford an Internet service that exceeds $100 a month.
There are 583,000 households with annual incomes between $20,000 and $75,000, and of those 114,000 have no Internet service. Their access to Internet will depend on what is available.
Since Arkansas began its program to provide broadband access to rural and unserved areas, the technical requirements have increased.
It used to be that the minimum speed required by the Federal Communications Commission was 25/3 megabytes of data per second. The 25/3 refers to upload/download capacity.
State officials alerted the legislature to expect higher standards of 100/100 Mbps when new rounds of federal funding become available. Of course, the higher minimum standards have raised the costs of providing broadband.
Also, under previous standards, broadband could be provided by satellite, fixed wireless connections and fiber optic cables. New standards will limit funding to projects that install fiber optic cables.
BroadbandNow, an independent policy research organization, ranks Arkansas 41st in the country in broadband access. The FCC reports that 63% of residents in rural Arkansas have access, while 95% of the people in urban areas have access.
About 57% of the state has coverage that allows downloads of 100 Mbps or greater. However, that high performance standard comes at a higher price. When you factor in people's ability to afford more expensive plans, only 22.8% of Arkansans have equitable access to broadband with a minimum capability of 100 Mbps.
Legislators will consider whether broadband expansion worsens the "digital divide," by increasing opportunities for some people while low-income families fall further behind because they cannot afford high-speed Internet service.
The digital divide is important because it signifies much more than the capacity to watch movies and television shows. As the pandemic has proven, Internet access affects education, health care and work. Without broadband, there are students who cannot turn in their homework and parents who cannot keep their jobs.
Policy makers equate today's efforts to expand broadband access with rural electrification in the 1930s, and the building of railroads in the 19th century. Broadband allows people to seek opportunity, education and health care outside of their local region.
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Editor's note: Arkansas Sen. Cecile Bledsoe represents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bledsoe is chair of the Senate Health Committee.