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OPINION | EDITORIAL: State needs speedier rural internet access

January 12, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

Rural parts of the state sometimes have a hard time getting the attention of state lawmakers, but maybe that won't be the case with a renewed effort to increase the quality of internet connectivity.

A live-streamed discussion last week with Gov. Asa Hutchinson and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd speaking to reporters indicated that broadband service to the less-populated parts of the state was on the agenda for the upcoming legislative session.

"Broadband service has come to the forefront," Shepherd told those gathered. "Through the CARES Act, we were able to expand additional monies for broadband."

State Sen. Jimmy Hickey Jr. (R-Texarkana), who was also on the call, said a significant amount of money had been set aside to help spread the internet.

"We're going to be looking at $30 million to redirect from surplus for broadband activities," he said. "I know that's what the governor is looking to do. I think he has the broad support to do that."

Certainly, that would appear to be the case. Hutchinson said pushing broadband into rural areas is "at the top of the discussion," he said.

This is not the first time we've seen money earmarked for beefing up internet service, but it will take a concerted effort to make that happen across all of the wide swaths of sparsely populated Arkansas. And improvements are sorely needed.

Anecdotally, the effort to teach students via the internet has been difficult to say the least. Students who live "out" who have to download lesson assignments have been known to still be sitting there 45 minutes later as a short video makes its way to them across a slow, spotty internet feed.

Some students also have had to get in their cars or their parents' cars and drive somewhere where there's a wifi signal to do their homework. To combat that, school districts have also had to put wireless routers in school buses and park them in various places around their districts in order to give students a reliable enough connection to work online.

And there is more evidence that the state needs help with connectivity than just anecdotal. Broadband Now, an outfit that analyzes, among other things, the quality of internet service available to counties in Arkansas, pegged the state at 41st out of the 50 states,

"This relatively low ranking is closely related to the fact that over 20% of Arkansans remain without access to a wired broadband connection capable of 25 Mbps speeds or faster," according to the site. "Additionally, only 11.7% of the population has access to fiber-optic internet services, which is less than half of the national average of 25% of consumers with access to fiber internet."

Broadband Now's ratings for counties in southeast Arkansas range from 85% access to broadband for Cleveland County to 28% for Lincoln County. In Jefferson County, about 62 percent of residents have access to speedy internet.

Those numbers show that many residents in Arkansas and southeast Arkansas in particular are being left behind on the information superhighway.

There are some people who operate their lives far away from computers and anything to do with the internet. But today's world, in so many ways, operates online, and not having a solid connection to that system stunts the economic growth and viability of not just the individuals who want and need the service but of the state as a whole.


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