From the quiet hallways of the most beautiful state Capitol in our great nation, this is Senator Keith Ingram.
The Arkansas rural Connect Program is not very well known. It’s barely a year old.
But by the end of this year, people in small towns and rural areas will appreciate the work it is doing and the results it is achieving.
Arkansas Rural Connect is helping communities pay for better access to high speed Internet, which is essential for improving local schools, health care and economic development.
Just last week, the towns of Fairfield Bay and Ozark received the project’s first two grants.
Fairfield Bay got almost $1.6 million and Ozark got $1.9 million. More grants are on the way because Arkansas has more than $19.3 million available from the federal CARES Act, and it must be distributed to local communities before the end of the year.
An additional $4.7 million is available for Internet expansion projects that won’t be finalized until 2021.
Using those funds to expand broadband access has already been approved by the CARES Act Steering Committee and the Legislative Council.
So you can see how serious the state is about expanding Internet access in every corner of Arkansas.
The pandemic has made the program even more important, because so many children in rural areas and small towns lack access to virtual classrooms.
There is a very real possibility that students will be required to take online classes, and if that happens the gap will grow even wider between those areas that have access to computer networks and those areas that do not.
Expanding access to high speed Internet will level the playing field for students in isolated parts of the state.
It may take another year to develop and perfect a vaccination against Covid-19, and it may take that long for schools to get back to normal. That is a long time in the life of children and teenagers.
In a single year they could fall far behind their peers in big cities if they cannot take the online classes, and it will be hard for them to catch up.
Fortunately, we’re not starting from scratch when it comes to connecting schools to the Internet.
Beginning in 2015, the Arkansas Public School Network has been upgrading broadband systems with fiber optic cables.
We’ve seen tremendous increases in the amount of data that can be transmitted, while at the same time we’re seeing costs go down.
Enrollment in computer coding classes continues to go up. We may not always give them the credit they’re due, because young people truly appreciate that we now live in a knowledge-based economy.
Young people understand that there are good, stable jobs to be had for workers with a background in computer science, technology and information systems.
That’s why I’m so excited about the Arkansas Rural Connect program. It’s an investment that will create well paid jobs for the next generation to grow up in our small towns and rural communities.
From the Capitol, it is always my greatest honor and most sincere privilege to serve you as your state Senator. This is Senator Keith Ingram.
Tune in to the audio recording of this week's address below: