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Weekly Address – December 4, 2020

From the historic hallways of the most beautiful state Capitol in our great nation, this is Senator Keith Ingram.

Predicting the fate of legislation is just as uncertain as predicting the weather.

However, I’m going out on a limb and predicting that the Arkansas General Assembly will approve legislation to make computer science a requirement for graduation from high school.

The long-time chair of the Senate Committee on Education has agreed to sponsor the bill. The governor has publicly expressed his support during a recent news conference.

Any legislation that seeks to close the “digital divide” starts out with a lot of momentum.

Years ago, Arkansas policy makers began working to upgrade our broadband capacity.

Thank goodness they did, because the coronavirus pandemic makes it more important than ever for schools, hospitals and law enforcement to be connected through high speed computer networks.

UAMS, the state’s medical school in Little Rock, led a project that connected 454 sites in Arkansas, including universities, colleges, research facilities and hospitals, with reliable high speed fiber optic cables.

At the same time, law enforcement agencies were connecting to the Arkansas Wireless Information Network.

The wireless network has greatly improved communications among police departments and first responders, not just within the same jurisdiction but also with the State Police and agencies in neighboring counties.

It has also boosted the popularity of Next Generation 911 technology.

Just think, if you had to find a landline to call 911, you’d be in big trouble. But thanks to new technologies you can call for help from a cell phone, you can text, use social media or use voice protocol on your laptop.

For years the legislature has been steadily increasing financial support for the Arkansas Public School Computer Network, with the goal of connecting every classroom to the Internet.

Even before the pandemic began, the legislature had invested in grant programs that enable small towns and rural communities to create partnerships with local Internet providers. Those efforts have paid enormous dividends in recent months.

Under the health restrictions made necessary by the Covid virus, it’s more important than ever that every child is connected to teachers and classmates.

It’s not enough to simply connect schools. Individual students and their families must have affordable access to high speed Internet, which is why the state spent $10 million to purchase 20,000 wireless access devices.

Kids in low-income families need Internet access at home, not just when they go to the library, or the parking lot of the local coffee shop.

Arkansas is spending millions in coronavirus relief funds to finance broadband access in rural areas across the state.

Those improvements won’t suddenly disappear after a vaccine against Covid has been developed and distributed.

The pandemic forced policy makers to accelerate projects that bring high speed Internet to the most isolated areas of Arkansas, and when the pandemic is gone those benefits will be here to stay.

From the Capitol, it is always my great honor and sincere privilege to serve you as your state Senator. This is Keith Ingram.


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