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State Capitol Week in Review – April 23, 2022

LITTLE ROCK – A six-month survey of Internet access in Arkansas has been completed, and state officials now have a more accurate roadmap of which regions need more investment in broadband technologies.

They also have a clearer idea of how much that investment will cost. With up to $350 million, broadband can be provided to about 100,000 households. Then it gets even more expensive. To provide Internet capability to the last 10,000 isolated homes in Arkansas will cost about $200 million.

There are 1.7 million households in Arkansas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A total of about 210,000 households lack adequate broadband access, according to the statewide broadband study that was released recently.

Of those 210,000 households lacking broadband, about 100,000 are eligible for existing state and federal programs and the remaining 110,000 households are in areas where no government program exists. Those are the households for which it will cost about $550 million to connect them to high-speed Internet.

The standard of high speed broadband capacity steadily goes up. The statewide study set it at 100/20 megabits per second. The first number refers to download speed and the second number to upload speed.

In the early days of the Internet, still images and text made up the majority of content on web sites, and the data that consumers uploaded and downloaded.

Now, consumers expect to listen to audio, such as podcasts that can last more than 10 minutes. They expect to watch videos, and send them to friends, family and business associates.

Consumer expectations have helped drive a remarkable growth in broadband capacity. For the past 30 years it has averaged growth of more than 50 percent a year.

The exponential growth in capacity is expected to continue, so the state study recommends that providers be required to “future proof” all new networks they install. That means they should be required to install technology that is proven to be able to handle demands of tomorrow. Fiber optic cable is an example.

The study recognizes that the monthly price paid by consumers is a factor that can cause an area to be lacking in service. In other words, if the government pays a provider to install a system that nobody can afford, that provider has not served the area with high speed Internet.

The study recommends $50 a month per household, or less, as the standard for describing broadband as affordable.

The consulting firm that did the study, Broadband Development Group, held more than 300 community meetings and surveyed more than 18,000 Arkansas residents.

The firm worked with 29 broadband providers and electric co-ops, and with the Farm Bureau, the Municipal League, the state Chamber of Commerce, the Association of Arkansas Counties, the Arkansas State Library Association and the Arkansas Sheriffs Association.

The state Education Department, Transportation Department, State Police, UAMS, the Economic Development Commission, Arkansas PBS and the Division of Agriculture helped.

The Covid-19 pandemic provided a huge impetus for the project, because so many students and employees had to work from home. Federal covid relief funds have been essential for much of investment in broadband that the state has made over the past three years. Since July of 2019 the state Broadband Office has distributed $386 million in grants to local communities.


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