Internet access continues to remain one of the most pressing issues that we face here in Arkansas, particularly in our rural communities, which are over four times more likely to be without high-speed Internet access than the national average.
This is an important issue that currently affects more than 375,000 Arkansans. While 20 years ago, lacking reliable Internet might've been a slight inconvenience, in today's world, it's a necessary requirement in order for business, education, and health care to thrive. Reliable Internet access would also greatly benefit agriculture workers, with one analysis finding that broadband deployment to unserved rural areas would elicit a 3 percent improvement in farm profits nationally.
Lawmakers in Arkansas, including myself and many of my colleagues, have worked hard to create a pathway forward to bridge the digital divide across the state. We know that unserved rural communities are hurt the worst and being deprived of the financial benefits provided by broadband.
In 2019, I was proud to work alongside 20 of my Republican women colleagues in the Legislature to sponsor a packet of bills aimed at expanding broadband across the state.
With both the CARES Act and the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, sizeable funding for broadband infrastructure deployment has been passed during both the current and previous presidential administrations, reflecting agreement from policymakers on both sides regarding the need to close the digital divide. With billions in taxpayer dollars being used to address the issue of broadband access, it is critical that a plan for speedy and efficient deployment is put in place.
An accelerated rollout of broadband will require the cutting of red tape and updates to outdated utility-pole access, as our current system lacks uniformity and more often than not leads to unnecessary bureaucratic delays.
For Internet service providers to bring high-speed Internet to unserved communities, they will require utility-pole access in order to attach broadband technology. Providers often do not own poles, so to get access, providers must get permits and permission from the pole owners.
Unfortunately, the pole-access process for broadband deployment has fallen short.
Broadband providers are in agreement that they should pay the necessary fee for pole access, but too often, negotiations are tied up by an inefficient process. When disputes come up, they usually take far too long to get resolved, which prevents broadband from expanding at the pace that consumers need.
These delays not only bleed taxpayer money, but strip rural unserved communities and economies of the Internet access that they so desperately need.
While we continue to work at the local level to bridge the gap for rural Arkansans, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., can take action to eliminate the bureaucratic impediments and cut unnecessary red tape causing delays to high-speed Internet access.
By setting up rules that make the process transparent and establishing regular timelines for permits and access to poles, they can expedite broadband infrastructure expansion.
More broadband means greater competition and increased quality of service. With Arkansas currently ranking 47th in the nation for broadband access, this is a goal we should all be working toward.
These changes will not only give those in our underserved rural areas a chance at success in this evolving digital world, they will create a lasting impact on our state as a whole and protect our taxpayers' hard-earned dollars.
State Rep. Michelle Gray represents District 62 in the Arkansas House.