Will the expansion of broadband worsen the “digital divide”?
LITTLE ROCK – Over the past two years, Arkansas has made a massive financial commitment to expand broadband access to all areas of the state.
So far, $ 275 million has been approved and the Legislative Council is expected to increase this investment to $ 400 million when it considers an additional $ 125 million in broadband proposals at its November meeting.
To date, the investment has funded 132 projects that have brought high-speed Internet access to 89,276 homes. A total of 213,570 Arkansans live in these households.
The legislature faces several challenges in ensuring that the money is spent efficiently. He hired a consultant to develop a master plan to coordinate the ‘footprint’ of each project, similar to how road projects are connected.
Another challenge is to balance political and social demands. There are 222,000 households in Arkansas with an annual income of less than $ 20,000, according to the US Census Bureau. About 91,000 of these households have no Internet subscription. They probably couldn’t afford Internet service that exceeded $ 100 per month.
There are 583,000 households with annual incomes between $ 20,000 and $ 75,000, and of these, 114,000 do not have Internet service. Their internet access will depend on what is available.
Since Arkansas launched its program to provide broadband access to rural and unserved areas, technical requirements have increased.
Previously, the minimum speed required by the Federal Communications Commission was 25/3 megabytes of data per second. 3/25 refers to upload / download capacity.
State officials have alerted the legislature to expect higher standards of 100/100 Mbps when new rounds of federal funding become available. Of course, the higher minimum standards have increased the costs of providing broadband.
In addition, according to previous standards, broadband could be provided by satellite, fixed wireless connections and fiber optic cables. New standards will limit funding to fiber optic cable installation projects.
BroadbandNow, an independent policy research organization, ranks Arkansas 41st in the country for broadband access. The FCC reports that 63% of people in rural Arkansas have access to it, while 95% of people in urban areas have access.
About 57% of the state has coverage that allows downloads of 100 Mbps or more. However, this high performance standard comes at a higher price. When you factor in people’s ability to afford more expensive plans, only 22.8% of Arkansans have fair access to broadband with a minimum capacity of 100 Mbps.
Lawmakers will examine whether the expansion of broadband is worsening the ‘digital divide’, increasing opportunities for some people while low-income families fall further behind because they cannot afford high internet service. speed.
The digital divide is significant because it means more than the ability to watch movies and TV shows. As the pandemic has proven, Internet access affects education, healthcare, and work. Without broadband, there are students who cannot hand in their homework and parents who cannot keep their jobs.
Policymakers equate today’s efforts to expand broadband access to rural electrification in the 1930s and to railroad construction in the 19th century. Broadband allows people to seek opportunities, education and health care outside of their local area.