OPINION: Guest writer

OPINION | ANGIE COOPER: Real life-changer

Internet access No. 1 economic issue

We are witnessing a moment of unprecedented funding to expand high-speed Internet access across the country. This is life-changing for the estimated 42 million Americans lacking access to a reliable Internet connection and their ability to participate in a modern economy.

Importantly, closing the digital divide also means making our local economies more resilient and increasing our regional competitiveness. While these conversations often can feel somewhat distant, it's key to consider the tangible and meaningful impacts these dollars are having right here in Arkansas and across the heartland to improve our economy.

In the past, a lack of access to high-speed Internet has had negative economic effects. Looking at the strong correlation between high-speed Internet availability, jobs and GDP growth, a 2021 Deloitte study found if there had been just a 10 percent increase in broadband access in 2014, there would have been 875,000 additional jobs by 2019 and $186 billion more in economic output.

That's a lot of jobs and economic activity left on the table. Nearly a decade later, we have the chance to avoid these missed opportunities so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past.

One of the biggest economic drivers in closing the digital divide is new jobs. For example, Arkansas is slated to receive nearly $5 billion in funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, including $1 billion to build out Internet service networks awarded just this June. Those funds mean Internet access for the people who need it and jobs to set clear pathways for workers to build a career in the industry.

Jobs will be created to not only physically lay fiber-optic networks, but also to support communities in gaining the digital skills needed to access the Internet once we have this infrastructure readily available. Many of the jobs will be transferable to long-term careers within fields, such as telecommunications company providers, Internet service providers and contractors. It will also spur new supply chains to provide the physical resources for service, construction and technical assistance. Ultimately, this massive nationwide push to expand Internet access will stimulate economic growth in a phenomenal way across state and local levels.

With that community-level growth comes regional competitiveness and the ability to change the economic trajectory of communities that have seen historically stagnant growth. This will be vital in the middle of the country, where Heartland Forward started the Connecting the Heartland initiative to expand high-speed Internet across Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee and now Oklahoma.

The question we pose to leaders is: How do we make sure we get it right? To us, it comes down to being prepared so we can maximize the funds most efficiently. In our time working on the ground with key partners, we've learned the importance of preparation.

Administering big sums of funding requires communities to be prepared to access and implement these funds--something that could be a barrier for many small and especially rural communities. Because of this need, Heartland Forward partnered with the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society to start the Accelerate program, which provides 30 hours of no-cost expert counsel for community leaders to help them develop broadband plans addressing their unique local barriers and needs for connectivity. In just a few short months, we helped 32 communities in four states come up with proactive plans to make use of these opportunities.

To further this work and ensure lasting community-driven solutions, a year ago we launched the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition to support the state and local communities in accessing federal funding for expanding affordable, high-speed Internet access. Our coalition included over a dozen partners--the state broadband office, nonprofits, the Farm Bureau, business leaders and more--demonstrating the power of public-private partnerships to address an issue like connectivity. At each of our coalition meetings, we see the incredible impact that comes from pulling stakeholders together who approach these issues with a wide range of perspectives underscored by our collective vision to grow Arkansas' economy.

These are just a few examples of the powerful work being done on the ground, but it illustrates how, if we put the right resources in place for community leaders and residents to get the job done one step at a time, we'll be certain to ensure the heartland and our country continue to thrive.

It's incumbent on leaders across public, private and nonprofit sectors to collaborate while we are distributing unprecedented infrastructure funding to ensure we don't let this historic opportunity to expand Internet access fail to reach its potential. We cannot let another year go by where we leave 175,000 jobs and $37.2 billion in economic output per year on the table, and we are excited by the opportunities that will come when the heartland is fully connected, as it is the No. 1 economic issue of our time.

Angie Cooper is the executive vice president of Heartland Forward, which is headquartered in Bentonville.

Upcoming Events