BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – With the support of Senate and House leadership, a legislative committee voted to begin the complex process of providing broadband Internet access to all areas of Arkansas.
The President Pro Tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives urged the Joint Committee on Advanced Communications and Information Technology to accelerate work on a statewide plan. The committee approved a timetable that calls for a plan to be ready by the fall of 2016, when the legislature begins budget hearings in preparation for the 2017 regular session.
There are numerous challenges to providing high-speed Internet access to isolated rural communities, beginning with costs. Communications providers, such as telephone and cable television companies, have not laid fiber optic cables in some areas because it would not be profitable. State government cannot simply mandate that a private company make investments, whether or not they are likely to be profitable.
Among other ideas, the Speaker of the House suggested that a public-private partnership might be the solution.
Another question is the type of technology best suited for rural Arkansas. Some companies are using cell towers to provide wireless Internet access in rural areas. Others are laying fiber optic cables.
When asked about the legislature’s plan to expand broadband access, spokesmen for the state’s major communications companies were generally supportive but also cautious until more details emerge.
While encouraging the development of greater access to the Internet in rural areas, at the same time legislators must be careful that new government incentives are fairly applied. Legislative decisions should not distort the workings of the market place in determining the most cost effective method of providing broadband.
Broadband is defined by the committee as the capability to provide 25 megabits of data per second. According to recent surveys, only 58 percent of Arkansas residents have access to that much capacity.
More than ever, Internet sites are loaded with videos, commercials, podcasts and graphics that can be downloaded onto a person’s personal computer. Without high-speed access, it is impossible to visit numerous sites because they take hours to load, and after a certain length of time they merely shut down access.
The House chairman of the Advanced Communications Committee said that he has seen studies indicating that Alaska has more broadband access than Arkansas. The House Speaker noted that broadband access is an economic issue, because industries don’t locate in areas where it’s not available. Also, with advances in telemedicine it is a public health issue that can improve the quality of life in isolated, rural areas.
The state is already providing Internet access to public schools at the rate of about three school districts per week, according to a spokesman for the Department of Information Services.
Earlier this year the state awarded contracts to telecommunications companies that bid to lay fiber optic cable to public schools across the state. The majority of schools should be connected by next year, and every school in Arkansas will be connected by July of 2017.
Legislative leaders expressed concern that students in rural areas had broadband access while at school but not at home, which limited their ability to study and work on school projects.