OPINION | REX NELSON: Broadband revolution

Robert McClanahan is wearing a cap that says "fiber" on the front as I interview him about broadband. McClanahan is a technology expert, but he can explain things in a way that newspaper folks like me can understand. The ability to translate what I call techno-talk into English is rare.

McClanahan graduated summa cum laude from Henderson State University with a bachelor's degree in physics and computer science. Talk about two difficult majors. After beginning his career at Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. in 1981 as a programmer, he moved up to systems analyst and then department manager before a promotion to vice president in 2000. McClanahan's current title is vice president of information technology and chief technology officer.

I'm at AECC's southwest Little Rock headquarters because Arkansas' rural electric cooperatives are moving into the broadband arena in a big way. I've long preached that broadband is to the 21st century what electricity was to the 20th century--crucial for people who want to live in rural areas.

There are myriad companies involved in broadband deployment across Arkansas. The cooperatives' effort is the most interesting from a historical standpoint due to their rural electrification efforts in the 20th century. AECC, which was formed in 1949, is a wholesale electric provider with more than $727 million in annual sales. It's owned by the state's 17 cooperatives.

"The first time a fiber network was mentioned around here was 2014," McClanahan says. "We studied it for three years, and then our board approved it in April 2018. We're like the interstate highway of the broadband system. It's similar to the role we play on the electric side of the equation."

AECC owns or contracts for 4,280 megawatts of generating capacity and serves almost 1.3 million members. The move into broadband made sense for cooperatives, which already provide electricity to 60 percent of Arkansas' geographic footprint.

Internet access is associated with lower poverty levels in rural areas. In the 2020 census, 53 of the state's 75 counties lost population during the previous 10 years. The harsh truth is that counties without good broadband access will continue to lose residents.

The cooperatives' Diamond State Networks provides what's known as middle-mile access, uniting the telecom networks of individual cooperatives. DSN is the interstate. Cooperatives and other Internet service providers then provide what are called last-mile services. A statewide network allows the purchase of upstream services at lower costs while also attracting more content providers to the state.

DSN's mission statement says: "We envision a future where the state of Arkansas is the most significantly connected state in the country. Broadband is the single-most powerful bridge of socioeconomic divides, and our mission is to catalyze the growth of high-speed connections throughout the state."

To its credit, the Legislature has poured millions of dollars into broadband projects in recent years. Millions of additional federal dollars are also being used in a movement reminiscent of the role played by the Rural Electrification Administration in the previous century when getting electricity to rural areas was a national priority. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 7037 creating REA in May 1935.

On Aug. 1, Glen Howie began work as state government's broadband director. He previously had been with the Louisiana Office of Broadband Development and Connectivity.

"Broadband delivery has always been one of my priorities," says Gov. Asa Hutchinson. "For Arkansas to reach its economic potential, we need to do everything we can to close the digital divide and ensure that those in rural communities have the same opportunities as their counterparts in larger cities. I believe Glen Howie is the perfect choice to lead our efforts."

Mike Preston, the state's commerce secretary, says Howie was an integral part of "one of the most highly regarded broadband offices in the country. He knows how we need to focus our efforts to ensure that everyone in Arkansas has access to affordable broadband and has the skills to use it."

Louisiana was among the first four states to have its broadband funding plan approved by the federal government. It's ranked first nationally in enrollment in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program.

Hutchinson created Arkansas' broadband office in July 2019. It has awarded almost $400 million in grants through the Arkansas Rural Connect grant program.

"Like railways two centuries ago and electricity 100 years ago, broadband Internet access today has become a critical piece of infrastructure, igniting economic growth, improving health outcomes, enhancing agricultural output and advancing the educational experiences of our children," Howie says.

DSN is spending more than $1.6 billion for 50,000 miles of fiber that will serve up to 1.25 million people in 71 of the state's 75 counties. The cooperatives advertise it as the most impactful broadband project in Arkansas history, an effort that will ensure decades of quality connections and increase the appeal of living and working in rural Arkansas.

DSN is co-managed by Mitchell Johnson, CEO of Ozarks Electric Cooperative (which serves more than 70,000 homes, farms, businesses and industries in northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma), and Jeremiah Sloan, CEO of Craighead Electric Cooperative (which has more than 30,000 members in eight northeast Arkansas counties).

"The folks at Ozarks paved the way for other cooperatives to get into the broadband business," Sloan says. "We started talking to them in 2018, and that led to a statewide network. We already had infrastructure in place to deliver electricity. We saw the needs of our members. They wanted us to supply better broadband that's affordable."

Of the state's 17 cooperatives, 13 are involved with DSN.

"By working together, we reduce the transport cost, and that benefits everyone from content providers to customers," McClanahan says. "When we started getting serious about this, the board asked me how long it would take us to get into the game in a big way. I said five years. That will be April of next year."

McClanahan says that thanks to Ozarks Electric Cooperative, his mountain cabin near West Fork has better broadband service than his home in Maumelle.

"We're already talking to cooperative members who have far more advanced broadband services than their friends in urban areas," McClanahan says. "That makes me smile."

McClanahan can remember his father telling stories about the day electricity came to the family farm.

"Now, we're hearing similar stories from those getting broadband at their farms," he says. "This is a really cool thing to be a part of. We're making history."

Sitting across the table, Sloan chimes in: "This is an unprecedented project. We're serious when we say we want to make Arkansas the most connected state in the country. This project has been invigorating for all of us. We're about 30 percent done. There's still a lot of work to do."

McClanahan says DSN will work closely with Howie and others in the state broadband office.

"They're determining the best use of government funds," he says. "They understand that it takes longer for those of us running fiber. Nothing is foolproof, but the fiber we're using is the closest thing I've seen. This fiber will still be good 50 years from now. We've suffered supply chain problems like everyone else. Things we ordered a year ago are just now starting to come in. But the pieces finally are falling into place."

McClanahan, in his 41st year of working with the cooperatives, doesn't think the DSN mission statement is overblown.

"We really can be No. 1, 2 or 3 in the country," he says. "Our collective mission is to improve the quality of life for Arkansans. In today's economy, there are few better ways to do that than by providing reliable, affordable broadband."

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.