OPINION

OPINION | MOREAU: Arkansas remains 44th in broadband availability, annual study shows


Arkansas appears to be holding its own in initiatives to expand broadband availability across the state -- though in one recent analysis that means remaining near the bottom of the nation in high-speed internet availability, coverage and pricing.

BroadbandNow, an independent research and advocacy group that monitors nationwide broadband deployment, says that Arkansas is, at best, treading water as it remains ranked 44th in the U.S. in making broadband available to residents. That's the same rank the state had in last year's annual report from the group.

Expanding broadband became a priority during the pandemic as schools and businesses closed or adjusted to a work-from-home environment, forcing students and employees to rely on high-speed internet service to keep up with lessons and daily job duties. Federal support increased, and states like Arkansas have been able to take advantage of the funding flow to hook up homes in rural areas that have been too costly for providers to reach with internal funds.

The new analysis from BroadbandNow features state rank, access, speeds and pricing, the number of providers in the state, and an array of demographic information.

About 15% of Arkansas homes -- roughly 174,000 households -- today do not have access to a wired or fixed-wireless broadband service, which the Federal Communications Commission defines as speeds of 25 megabits per second for download and 3 megabits per second for upload. That means that roughly 2 of every 10 Arkansas households lack high-speed internet service.

More troubling, the report says that only about 25% of homes have access to a "wired low-price broadband plan," which the organization defines as a price of $60 per month or less.

Last month, Arkansas released a broadband master plan the state commissioned to evaluate gaps in service and to help effectively target funding to deliver high-speed internet to underserved areas.

That study, run by the Broadband Development Group of Little Rock, found that about 210,000 homes in Arkansas lack adequate access to broadband – the study defined adequate access as download speeds of 100 megabits per second. At the same time, the study noted that planning is underway to provide and fund access for 100,000 of those homes, which would leave 110,000 households without high-speed internet.

It would cost $550 million to deliver broadband to those homes, the study found, noting that they are in hard-to-reach rural areas where cost of service is higher than in more-populated towns and communities.

Arkansas does make up ground, according to BroadbandNow, when examining deployment of 1 gigabit service. About 54.7% of homes have access to the speedy connection, pushing Arkansas to 39th in the nation. Windstream Holding Inc. of Little Rock, which provides broadband to mostly rural areas across the state, has committed to deploying 1 gig service in its new rollouts.

Some interesting findings by BroadbandNow:

• Pulaski County has the highest level of coverage, with nearly 96% of homes having access to broadband.

• Springdale has the state's fastest average download speed of 275 megabits per second.

• Cox Communications is the fastest provider in the state, delivering average download speed of 161.8 megabits per second.

BroadbandNow says there are 154 internet providers in the state and nearly 2,900 in the U.S. The detailed report is available at broadbandnow.com/Arkansas.

ENTREPRENEURIAL SUPPORT

Nine small businesses in Central Arkansas have been selected for an accelerator program run by the Little Rock Venture Center and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The fourth Spark! cohort, which seeks to grow Arkansas-based companies, includes a range of businesses in the publishing, food services, beauty and pet e-commerce sectors.

"We are really pleased with these nine terrific small businesses and their enthusiasm for learning, growing and positively impacting Little Rock's future," said Jay Chesshir, president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber. "This group is ready to take on the challenges of thriving in our economy, and we look forward to helping make it happen."

Spark! takes the entrepreneurs through a series of programming that includes sales, marketing and a business-finance curriculum and connects participants with mentors.

The accelerator is built for entrepreneurs who have started a business and need technical support and other services to help grow their companies. "Most of them have already done the heavy lifting needed to get started and stay in business; however, they often need the tools to get to the next level. ... Spark! will help with this endeavor," said Pam Reed, the Venture Center's managing director of community programs.

This year's participants are:

• Sara Hurst of Bella's Kitchen & Wellness, a food-services company.

• Alicia Adams-Talbert of Talbert Lawn Services.

• Taliah Ragland of Aspiring Medical Training Institute, which offers professional training services.

• Dianna Donahue of Urbane Magazine, a black lifestyle publication.

• Nicole Snow and Crystal Hanner of Enova, which provides beauty products for women.

• Lendel Aikens of Med Unlimited, which offers mobile medical clinics.

• Lauren Anderson of Calm + Confidence, which promotes beekeeping and biodiversity preservation.

• Nicole Winstead of WoofCat, an e-commerce provider of pet snacks.

• Kristy Carter of Kristy Carter Consults, a marketing firm.

MORE SMALL BUSINESS AID

More support for Arkansas entrepreneurs is available through the T.H.R.I.V.E. emerging leaders reimagined program being offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

SBA is offering sessions beginning Friday to provide more information about the program. THRIVE is an advanced training series for small business owners and executives that operate companies with at least $250,000 in revenues; have been operating for three years; and have at least one employee other than the owner.

Participants must have one primary location in Arkansas and need to attend one of the informational sessions to take part in the 2022 cohort.

For more information or to sign up for a session, go to sba.gov/offices/district/ar/little-rock.

Column ideas or recommendations? Thoughts or musings that need pursuing? Contact me at [email protected] or at 501-378-3567.


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