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We deserve better broadband access by LESLIE RUTLEDGE SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | August 15, 2020 at 8:41 a.m.

Arkansas businesses and residents are more reliant than ever on high-speed Internet, particularly given the circumstances we all find ourselves living in with the covid-19 pandemic. From remote learning to working from home to vital telemedicine services, broadband connectivity has never been as important as it is today.

Yet not everyone has access to sufficient high-speed broadband Internet speeds. It's time to change that and make Arkansas first in broadband access.

As our nation seeks to rebuild a bruised and battered economy, it is critical that elected officials from Little Rock to D.C. prioritize the investment into broadband expansion. All Arkansans and Americans should have access to essential high-speed Internet and the tremendous opportunities that it provides. It is time for Congress to commit to expanding broadband Internet nationwide.

According to U.S. News & World Report, 84 percent of American homes subscribe to broadband Internet; however, only 13 percent actually have access to broadband service with speeds greater than 1 gigabit per second. Globally, the United States ranks 11th in the world for broadband speeds.

With the largest economy in the world, we should be first when it comes to keeping our citizens and businesses connected.

The picture in Arkansas is even more grim, I'm afraid. We rank 41st in the nation in terms of broadband access, with just over half of the population having terrestrial broadband coverage. Given the challenges we face, as we continue to work to strengthen our economy as well as our education system, we should be doing everything we can to expand broadband services in the Natural State.

Most recently, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, recognizing the importance of rural broadband for virtual classroom education, announced $10 million in CARES Act funding which will be directed for Wi-Fi access for students across Arkansas. This will provide 20,000 Wi-Fi devices across the state which students can use at home. Even with this tremendous effort, there will still be gaps in providing service if a student lives in an area that doesn't have access to a cellular signal.

Likewise, Governor Hutchinson's "Arkansas Rural Connect" initiative--which seeks to expand high-speed broadband Internet into our state's rural communities by 2022--is another step in the right direction, particularly as rural communities are the ones most frequently left behind on the other side of the "digital divide." As a product of rural Arkansas, I understand firsthand how important it is to invest in the digital infrastructure of our less-populated counties so that they can continue to compete in today's high-speed world.

For this to happen, it will first take a significant commitment from our elected officials. Fortunately, there does seem to be some rare bipartisan consensus in Congress around this issue. House Democrats have introduced an infrastructure package that would fund broadband expansion nationwide. Meanwhile, Republicans are also discussing a legislative effort to expand broadband access.

This is reassuring, as it will take a truly bipartisan effort to ensure all Americans have access to high-speed broadband networks.

A good starting point in Congress would be to fully fund the DATA Act as soon as possible. The DATA Act will help map the areas in our country that face the greatest need for broadband, so we can know precisely where to target deployment efforts. Congress should also look to pass new legislation aimed at strengthening and building out our entire broadband infrastructure while increasing existing aids to expand broadband access.

As Congress works to address this problem, it should do so in a way that preserves the light-touch regulatory environment under which the Internet has grown and evolved since its inception. It is that approach that has enabled our high-speed Internet networks to perform so well under the increased traffic experienced over the past several months.

Broadband Internet is vital to securing our economic recovery, strengthening our education system, improving health care, and expanding employment opportunities. The sooner Congress can commit to passing real solutions to close the digital divide and help make high-speed broadband Internet access a reality for all Arkansas families, the better off we will all be.


Leslie Rutledge is attorney general for the state of Arkansas.


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