Bridging the Broadband Gap in Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) – Being online is essential to being able to participate fully in society in 2022, but people living in rural Arkansas are disproportionately disconnected from this opportunity.

Lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels are aware of this. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson has been keen to bring broadband to rural Arkansas. US Senator John Boozman also championed the idea, saying, “If you’re not wired, you’re just not going to grow, you’re not going to thrive.”

More people live in cities than ever before, but much of Arkansas is still rural. The latest US census shows that less than 20% of Americans live in rural areas, generally defined as having low population density. About 44% of Arkansans live in these low density areas. This is the sixth highest figure in the country.

“Do you really want everyone to have to live in an urban area to get access to good broadband?” asks Jeff Cooperstein, an economist at the University of Arkansas.

Even university students, usually among the best connected in our society, are affected by the urban-rural broadband divide.

Anna Thompson, a student at the University of Arkansas, is staying on campus for spring break instead of going to Cedarville, a small town of about 1,400 people about 25 minutes north of Fort Smith, to to be with family.

“I would love to have the opportunity to spend some time like spring break there with my mom,” Thompson said. “But it’s just not as feasible as you might think. There is no connectivity.

Thompson is one of several local students on the wrong side of the divide. Cooperstein and his colleague, Dale Thompson, say many students have struggled to learn remotely during the pandemic due to a lack of connection while living at home.

“I’ve had students in rural areas who couldn’t access Blackboard during the pandemic,” Cooperstein said. “It was difficult for them to do their homework.”

Anna Thompson says she just can’t learn remotely if she wants to be in Cedarville.

“I don’t even have the opportunity to study there if I wanted to,” she said.

Data from the Pew Research Center shows that rural Americans lag behind urban and suburban residents in broadband ownership — as well as ownership of smartphones, tablets and computers.

That means a lot of Arkansans have to go out of their way to get online.

“Getting to urban areas takes time,” Cooperstein said. “It costs gas, and we’re currently looking at a situation where saving on gas costs is important to a lot of people.”

Dale Thompson, who teaches computer engineering at the University of Arkansas, is from Wynne, about an hour west of Memphis, with a population of less than 10,000. His parents live without internet at home.

“If we want the Internet, we actually have to go to town and use a library or something,” Thompson said.

What is the best way to connect rural areas? Dale Thompson says government funding is the most likely way to do this, because it’s simply not cost-effective for businesses to bring broadband to rural areas.

“When you have very sparsely populated areas and you’re trying to support them, it’s just not cost-effective to bring internet to some of those rural areas,” Thompson said.

Cooperstein argues that the long-term productivity gains we would see from a more connected population would make the investment worthwhile.

“These productivity gains will then exceed the costs of the government subsidy,” he said.

These gains fall into a category that Cooperstein calls “positive externalities,” meaning they don’t just benefit the people who get broadband.

“You bring people into the online economy,” Cooperstein explained. “So people are going to spend more. Hopefully this means they will be able to support local businesses that sell their product online. »

The cost of setting up broadband in rural areas is much higher than in urban areas. Not only is this a much larger area to cover with cables, but whoever installs them must pay rent to the owner of the poles to which these cables are attached.

“Who is going to spend that kind of money to run an internet connection on those poles to reach someone?” asks Dale Thompson.

Wireless is an option, but cell towers are expensive to maintain. Additionally, Thompson says that until full 5G and even 6G coverage rolls out, wireless connections won’t be as strong as wired broadband.

There are progress be done to bridge the urban-rural divide, as the share of rural Americans without home broadband declines every year.

Anna Thompson hopes for accelerated rural broadband expansion. It would allow him to spend more time in one of his favorite places, Cedarville.

“To be able to have the opportunity to just be on the pitch like that instead of being in a city… It’s so amazing,” she said. “I mean, it’s really beautiful there.”

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