President Trump recently met with Democratic congressional leaders to discuss the potential for advancing an infrastructure package this Congress. In addition to investments in roads, railways and air travel, the discussion included expansion of broadband access. Incorporating the deployment of high-speed, reliable broadband into any infrastructure efforts must be a priority.
Broadband investment strengthens our economy and expands opportunities for healthcare, agriculture and education. There is a need for improvement, particularly in rural areas. As a rural state, there are more challenges to providing Arkansans access to the minimum speed of wired broadband that experts agree is functional: 25 megabits per second.
In February, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a draft of its 2019 Broadband Deployment Report that showed growth in broadband connectivity nationwide. Despite the positive gains, internet access in rural areas of our state continues to be insufficient to meet the needs of residents. Arkansas ranks as the 48th most connected state, according to the FCC.
As a founder and co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, I’m leading efforts to find solutions that will close the existing digital divide. This Congress, the caucus will be facilitating the use of accurate broadband maps. Updated coverage surveys will help us underscore where resources need to be deployed in order to bring broadband to underserved areas.
Earlier this month, I joined my fellow caucus co-chairs to introduce the Measuring the Economic Impact of Broadband Act. This legislation will result in reliable data collection on the economic impact of broadband on our nation’s economy. This information will allow the public and private sectors to target investments to increase connectivity in Arkansas.
Support for the expansion of rural broadband was included in the 2018 Farm Bill. The bill that President Trump signed into law late last year allows the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to leverage grants and loans with loan guarantees to fund projects that deploy high-speed broadband in rural America. Coupled with the December 2018 launch of USDA’s ReConnect Program to facilitate broadband deployment, the farm bill’s policy changes will increase opportunities for rural areas to get resources to bridge the digital divide.
Arkansas organizations are taking advantage of these tools to promote connectivity. Earlier this year, Arkansas Rural Internet Service (ARIS), a partnership between Ouachita Electric Cooperative and South Arkansas Telephone Company, announced it received nearly $20 million in loan funding from USDA to deploy broadband in the region. USDA continues to promote its grant and loan programs and share how telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives, internet providers and communities can apply for these resources.
Members of my staff recently attended a broadband roundtable at the University of Arkansas at Monticello organized by Congressman Bruce Westerman to highlight opportunities for stakeholders in Drew and Ashley counties. I am hopeful this outreach will encourage more applicants intent on helping to increase connectivity in rural Arkansas.
Students in every public school across the state are now using high-speed broadband, which is another indication of just how vital reliable internet access continues to be within our 21st century society and economy.
Broadband is an important tool that we must provide all Arkansans access to in order to improve quality of life and economic opportunity. I look forward to working with my colleagues, the FCC and industry leaders to ensure all Arkansans have the ability to use broadband internet and enjoy the abundant benefits it provides.