Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday set a goal of expanding access to high-speed broadband Internet to all communities in the state with more than 500 people by 2022, calling for vast increases in Internet speed and connections for a state that ranks last in access to the Web.
The governor's State Broadband Plan, which does not call for a new commitment of state funds, instead relies on the expectation that large amounts of federal funds will be made available for Internet service providers to build networks and run wires into rural areas that now lack broadband access.
A 77-page report released Wednesday by the governor's office pointed to a trio of new laws passed by the Legislature earlier this year as influential in the deployment of broadband services. Among those laws was Act 198 of 2019, which ended the prohibition on government entities providing broadband services on their own or through a partnership with a private company.
No other new legislation is expected to be put forward to carry out the plan, a spokesman for the governor said.
"Broadband has become so essential to the modern American way of life that government can't be indifferent when people lack access to it," the introduction to the governor's plan states.
Arkansas ranks last among states in access to wired broadband, according to the website BroadbandNow.com. While 92% of Americans as a whole have access to wired broadband, only about 75% of Arkansans have similar access.
Arkansas state broadband planView
The Federal Communications Commission's standard for minimum broadband speeds is 25 megabits per second for downloads, and 3 Mbps for uploads. That's fast enough to download a song in a second, or a two-hour movie in about 10 minutes.
Maps created by the Arkansas Development Finance Authority's Economic Policy Division show that access to broadband is especially sparse in towns throughout the Arkansas Delta, Ozark Mountains and the southern timberlands. The governor's report also found that "substantial" parts of some urban areas, such as Little Rock and West Memphis, lack access to high-speed Internet.
J.R. Davis, a spokesman for the governor, said that by simply adopting a statewide plan, Internet service providers operating in Arkansas can score higher in their grant applications with the federal government.
"We want them to be able to have access to as much federal funding as possible," Davis said. "It's definitely a public-private partnership."
The governor's report pointed to investments in rural broadband being made by the FCC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the anticipation of a 10-year, $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that has been proposed by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. The fund has yet to be approved by the full commission. The report also calls for management of state-owned assets, such as utility towers and rights of way, to encourage their use by private companies in the expansion of broadband networks.
Elizabeth Bowles, the CEO of Little Rock wireless Internet service provider Aristotle Inc., described a lack of usable available infrastructure, such as poles on which to hang wire, and the distance between rural customers as a cost barrier to traditional Internet service providers expanding to rural areas. Without high-speed Internet, customers end up moving out of those communities, creating a "vicious cycle," Bowles said.
Bowles also serves as chairman of the FCC's Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, which has produced its own policy recommendations that were cited in the governor's report. Bowles said she provided feedback for the report before its release.
"Overall, this plan is an excellent start for removing barriers and encouraging broadband throughout the state," Bowles said. She added, "There's no reason for Arkansas to be 50th."
Other stakeholders that provided input for the report included AT&T, Cox, CenturyLink and Windstream, as well as several public agencies.
In a statement Wednesday, AT&T Arkansas President Ronnie Dedman said the company is still reviewing the plan, but "is supportive of rural broadband deployment and educational efforts about the benefits of broadband that can encourage greater adoption of high speed connections."
While the governor's plan does not specify how it plans to identify "population centers" of more than 500 people -- or whether those communities must be incorporated -- Davis said the effect of the plan will likely extend beyond small towns.
"If there's a smaller community [outside of town], they're going to be able to tap in as well because of the new lines that are being run out there," he said.
According to the report, 641,000 Arkansans did not have access to wired Internet capable of broadband speeds, despite 136 Internet service providers operating in the state, which has a population of about 3 million. There are 721,000 Arkansans who have access to a single wired Internet service provider, according to the report.
The governor had made Internet connectivity in schools a priority during his first term in office. Hutchinson began his second four-year term in January.
A Section on 05/16/2019
Print Headline: Governor sets '22 goal for broadband in state