More than one-fifth of Arkansans don't have access to broadband, making the Natural State the third worst in the nation for internet access, according to a report published in August.
Even in Saline County, home to many residents who commute to jobs in the Little Rock metropolitan area, officials and homeowners say some remain stuck with internet speeds that recall the dial-up era.
County officials, though, recently formed a broadband committee to determine what steps are needed to get faster internet to residents in even the farthest-flung parts of the area. It's not alone: a state agency has urged all of Arkansas' 75 counties to do so.
The Saline County Broadband Committee held its first meeting July 18. The committee is led by Trevor Villines, who also serves as the county's spokesman. They held their fourth meeting Tuesday and are "inching toward launching" a survey for residents, he said. They hope to have the survey ready for residents' input within the next month and a half.
The results of that survey will provide critical information for officials as they continue their fight to close the state's digital divide, according to officials.
Broadband, or high-speed internet, allows users to access the internet and related services "at significantly higher speeds than those available through 'dial-up' services," according to the Federal Communications Commission, the body that regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable. It can be provided via several platforms, such as Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), cable modem, fiber, wireless and satellite.
Villines said access at broadband speeds is crucial because so much happens through the internet. He cited paying bills, access to health care and education as examples.
"Broadband has really become one of the basic necessities of life in today's 21st-century world," he said.
The FCC likewise says broadband plays a critical role in expanding educational and economic opportunities.
The commission defines broadband as having a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second, or Mbps, and an upload speed of 3Mbps. That standard hasn't changed since it was established by the FCC in 2015, though a news release this July said commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel proposed raising it to 100Mbps for download and 20Mbps for upload.
Roughly 35% of Saline County residents are unserved or underserved in terms of broadband access, according to an audit by Broadband.money, a website that provides internet service providers with information about applying for grants.
According to Villines, the places with the worst access are the farthest away from Benton and Bryant, the county's two largest cities.
District 13 Justice of the Peace Keith Keck, a member of the county broadband committee, said not all of these areas with gaps in access are isolated, though. Even in Hot Springs Village, a community of roughly 16,000 people straddling Garland and Saline counties, some residents don't have broadband access. The gaps there are largely concentrated in the northern and southern parts of the community.
"We have one area there that's basically on dial-up, or other areas that are very, they're barely getting 10:1," said Keck, whose district includes part of Hot Springs Village and much of the western portion of Saline County.
Ken Unger, public services director for Hot Springs Village and another member of the broadband committee, said large parts of the community have "decent" internet coverage.
"But there are literally areas, and some of them are quite surprising, in the middle of what you'd assume would have coverage, where the incumbent providers have never upgraded their infrastructure in these areas," said Unger, an 11-year resident.
There's even a golf course in the middle of the community that hasn't yet been serviced by internet service providers, according to Unger.
One of the likely reasons some parts of the community still don't have access to broadband is the terrain, which can be rocky and heavily forested.
"We have a lot of rock content here in Hot Springs Village, which makes installation underground a challenge," he said. "And companies that are trying to make a profit are going to focus on areas where there's a higher population and it's easier to install."
Keck also pointed to servicing costs as an obstacle to getting broadband to parts of Saline County, even those that aren't completely isolated. Just off Narrows Road, for instance, some residents "basically have nothing," according to the justice of the peace.
"These are 10 to 15 houses on a county road that hasn't gotten reached yet by anybody because it wasn't really cost-effective for the internet providers to go into there," he said.
Keck and Unger said lack of access makes it harder for residents to do things that people with broadband might take for granted, such as access to telemedicine, entertainment and education resources. They also said the quality of internet access can affect whether a potential resident decides to move to an area.
"It affects our ability to develop in these areas because people that are trying to move here want areas that have decent internet access," Unger said. "And the areas that don't, obviously, are at a disadvantage."
Keck said that with the skyrocketing opportunity for remote work that resulted from the covid-19 pandemic, more people are willing to leave the cities where their jobs are physically based and instead work remotely in Arkansas. He cited as an example a man moving back to Hot Springs Village from California. He will need access to high-speed internet if he hopes to keep his job.
The justice of the peace worries that lack of access to broadband will lower the region's property values. Keck said he's spoken to appraisers who say that isn't happening yet, but he added that he felt confident that at some point "it's going to start affecting homes."
Christine Summers, 61, said she and her husband have lived without broadband since they moved to their Saline County home in 2004. The home is south of Shannon Hills and between Vimy Ridge and Sardis roads, and the only internet available to it is through satellite. That's an expensive option, according to Summers.
"We're in a very small pocket that's surrounded by people who have internet," she said.
Several years ago, Summers asked an internet company whose trucks she'd seen operating nearby how much it would cost to run service to her property. They estimated that it would cost her roughly $7,000, she said.
One of the reasons for the pricey quote, she said, is that there are only 10 or 12 houses in their subdivision, and the company may have decided it would not get back enough money on such an investment, despite its proximity to other areas that have broadband. The lack of access has had a negative effect on their quality of life, and Summers described her family as having "been at a disadvantage for 19 years."
Summers and her husband experience health issues -- she has multiple sclerosis and her husband has a brain tumor -- and aren't able to take advantage of telehealth opportunities that even nearby residents can use. She has to travel to the library to do research.
Summers and her husband aren't interested in moving to a place where they might have better internet, though, because "this is home."
Still, she said, "it's just sad to be able to see the lights of the freeway in the horizon at night and not have internet here."
Villines said the survey the Saline County Broadband Committee is working on will provide feedback necessary to clearly determine where broadband is still needed.
"There will be some funding coming down the pipeline with the feds," he said. "And we want to list our priorities to give to them, to say, 'Hey look, this is where the gaps are. We want to make sure that when y'all do the next round of funding, you guys consider these areas.'"
The committee was developed after a statewide tour the State Broadband Office (ARConnect) embarked upon from February to June, in which the agency visited each of the state's 75 counties to discuss broadband. After the roadshow, each county was encouraged to develop its own committee.
The Saline County committee aims to provide data to ARConnect while simultaneously using that information to develop priorities at the county level, according to Villines. The group is working on the creation of a paper survey with no more than six questions. Villines said the intent is to keep the survey as simple as possible while also collecting as much data as they can.
"We'll be asking residents, 'Do you have internet at your house? Where are you located? If you do have internet, what are your current speeds?'" he said.
Keck said he believes affordability will also be a critical question to ask.
"You can put internet in, but if those people can't afford it, it really doesn't make a difference," he said.
The committee expects to have multiple distribution and collection sites for residents to receive and submit their completed surveys, though the number and location of the sites haven't been determined.
They are also working with ARConnect on a statewide survey that will be available to take online. The State Broadband Office has already conducted several surveys on broadband access since it was first created in 2019 to address Arkansans' need for high-speed internet. One recent survey, the Digital Skills and Opportunity Survey, closed Aug. 2 and garnered 12,532 responses.
In the meantime, Villines said the committee continues to learn more about the status of broadband in the county. During Tuesday's meeting, for instance, a school representative said an internet service provider was putting down fiber cable around his district. The committee decided to inform the provider about its own efforts and invited it to get involved in the conversation surrounding expansion of access.
Unger said Tuesday's meeting was the first he had attended and that it appeared that the group was still getting organized. He said the number and variety of people he saw at the meeting suggested "good participation." Among the attendees were public officials and representatives from internet service providers and community groups.
"What that told me is it's a serious effort," Unger said.
ELSEWHERE IN ARKANSAS
Similar efforts are happening across the Natural State.
Arkansas ranks 49th in the nation for internet, according to an August report by BroadbandNow. The website states that its research "aims to provide insight into the current state of broadband, with a focus on informing policy decisions, guiding infrastructure investments and empowering communities to close the digital divide and foster inclusivity for all."
There are about 180,000 unserved homes in Arkansas, according to ARConnect's five-year action plan, published in August. The agency said that figure, which came from the FCC's National Broadband Map, is lower than the number of unserved sites in Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Missouri.
BroadbandNow, however, claims that the FCC's data overreports the number of people who have access. The site's report states that "if an [internet service provider] offers service to at least one household in a census block, then the FCC counts the entire census block as covered by that provider."
Regardless, many counties, especially those in rural areas, face an even greater uphill battle for broadband access than that experienced in Saline County. Independence, Newton and Polk counties are among the counties facing the greatest challenges.
As of August, ARConnect's grant program had taken strides toward reducing these gaps by awarding nearly $550 million across 185 projects, according to the agency. Those projects aim to connect 130,000 homes and businesses.
In June, the Biden administration announced that federal officials had allocated more than $1 billion for high-speed internet services in Arkansas as part of a multibillion-dollar nationwide grant program.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and ARConnect aim to eliminate the state's digital divide by 2028, "connecting every single home, business and community anchor institution to affordable, reliable high-speed internet," the agency states in the overview of its action plan.
Keck said he believes state officials have been proactive and willing to take action on the issue, but that those efforts, as well as those of the county committee, must be consistent and sustained if they are going to be successful. That consistency has been difficult to achieve, due in part to changes in leadership that occur when programs are implemented over several years, as well as the variety of initiatives and funds directed at improving access, according to the justice of the peace.
"The key is making sure that the money goes where it's truly needed, because I can see a challenge of the money just going to make something that's already pretty good -- trying to make it even better -- when you have the other people who don't have who are left behind," he said.