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Digital divide: An in-depth look at broadband access across the Ozarks

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[Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on broadband access. The Heber Springs Sun Times and its sister newspapers in central Arkansas, along with freelance writer Jay Brakefield, collaborated on this effort. The second and final part of the series, which will focus on the impact of broadband on education and health care, will be printed on Wednesday Feb. 10]

The digital divide in Arkansas isn’t a straight line. It’s fluid, it’s largely urban-rural, and its days seem to be numbered as millions of dollars pour into the state to provide universal broadband access.

Exactly how large this divide is can be difficult to parse. The Federal Communications shows that 100 percent of Faulkner, Pope, Van Buren, White and Independence counties, for instance, have access to at least one source of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 for uploads, the federal agency’s minimum standard.

The website Broadbandnow.com has two slightly different sets of percentages, in a map and a list: Faulkner, 94.3 (or 92.6); Pope, 89.3 (or 82.9); Van Buren, 16.8 (or 14); White, 76 (or 69.1); and Independence 77.1 (or 70.5).

The broadband map created by the State Broadband Office, the Commerce Department agency created in 2019 to oversee the expansion of access, doesn’t employ percentages but color-codes each county, based on FCC data, showing areas currently served or scheduled to receive 25/3 service and those that lack service and are candidates for inclusion in the program.

Broadbandnow ranks Arkansas 41st in the nation on broadband access. At one time, it was 50th. A report introduced last week by state Sen. Ricky Hill of Cabot in reference to SB74, which would allow municipal governments across Arkansas to initiate bonds to construct and equip broadband service facilities through partnerships with wireless service providers, ranked Arkansas 48th in the country for broadband access.

“In order to remain economically competitive, Independence County citizens and private business owners must have reliable access to broadband internet. The challenge of unreliable internet access and limited availability reaches beyond the scope of television and entertainment,” said Zach Harber, director of Career and Technical Education at University of Arkansas Community College Batesville.

Harber explained the Arkansas Rural Connect initiative will help ensure that a larger portion of rural residents are able to access critical services such as telemedicine and financial information, as well as provide small business owners the ability to better market their goods and services abroad.

“Additionally, broadband internet services expand employment opportunities for tech-savvy individuals who may be capable of working from home. Expanded access to reliable internet at an affordable price will undeniably enhance the quality of life for current residents, and those who may be interested in moving to our area,” Harber said.

Data on coverage even five years ago is difficult to come by, but it seems clear that the state is on the upswing.

As for coverage figures, Steven Porch, executive broadband manager for the broadband office’s Arkansas Rural Connect program, said that “there has been some exaggeration in coverage” by providers. Some residents complain that satellite coverage, one of the several ways in which broadband is delivered, is spotty or too expensive. Tilly, an unincorporated community in Pope County, has the worst internet in Arkansas, with an average download speed of 7.99 Mbps, according to Broadbandnow, though two satellite providers claim 99.9 percent coverage with 25 Mbps. On the state map, Tilly is just outside an area with better coverage. The state agency’s site, broadband.arkansas.gov, offers an opportunity to test the speed of your computer.

Representatives of the two satellite providers, HughesNet and Viasat, pointed out that satellite is a finite resource and said any interruption or slowdown in service is generally caused by inadequate coverage, usually in densely populated areas. Both have new satellites under construction.

Oh, and about that money. The state broadband office received $119 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and $5.7 million in state funds to disburse grants to providers for broadband expansion, Porch said. Of that, about $86 million has been granted for 60 projects to add or improve service, with an emphasis on unserved or underserved communities. The deadline to deploy these projects was extended to Jan. 31, and new projects will have until Sept. 30 to deploy. Porch said he has received calls from several providers saying that they’re done and are signing up customers, awaiting clearance from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences tech staff, which will continue to monitor the projects as they go forward. In some cases, the grant goes to both the provider and a governmental entity: $803,762 to Hillbilly Wireless and Cave City, which straddles Independence and Sharp counties; $512,077 to Hillbilly Wireless and Oil Trough, in Independence County; $2,497,795 to Windstream and White County; and $2,902,845 to The Computer Works and Mayflower, in Faulkner County. In those cases, Porch said, the governmental entities are encouraged not to merely sign off on the funds but to play an active role in negotiating an affordable price for the service.

Jackson Wilson, business director of The Computer Works, said the Conway-based company’s mission is to provide broadband to rural areas. He said the project was “close to the finish line” and would make home fiber available to all Mayflower residents, potentially 1,450 customers. Much faster speeds are available, but broadband at the minimum FCC standard will be available with unlimited data for $55 per month.

Ed Kegley, vice president of Hillbilly Wireless, said the company received four grants, including those for the projects in Independence County. He said about 20 new customers had subscribed to the wireless service in the Oil Trough area, 30 to 40 in Cave City. Eventually he said, the company could sign up 3,000 to 4,000 subscribers in the two areas, about 70 percent in Cave City, which is larger. He said the company had apprised the mayors of the two towns of its rates but that no negotiation took place. The monthly fee is usually $59.99, in line with industry standards.

Additional funds include $6.2 million from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s State Broadband Initiative; $424 million from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Program, which aims to bring service to 388,000 Arkansans over the next decade; and $635 million from the Agriculture Department’s ReConnect Program.

“We don’t play any role in the expansion of these projects,” Porch said. “However, we do look to see what areas are awarded and do our best not to overbuild in these communities.”

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