Weekly Columns

As more Americans are taking precautions to avoid exposure to COVID-19, they are relying more on their at-home broadband connection for work, school and health care. This can be extremely challenging for Arkansans who don’t have access to reliable broadband in their homes. We long ago recognized the need to expand broadband, but this crisis has magnified the urgency to close the digital divide that puts rural areas at a significant disadvantage. More than ever, individuals and families are turning to a trusted resource to access the internet—libraries.  

Local libraries are often the only source of free Wi-Fi in rural communities. Many seniors, homeless individuals and students rely solely on libraries to get online. During this public health emergency, libraries across the country have continued offering this critical service. A survey of librarians by the Public Library Association found that over 40 percent of respondents moved their library’s routers outdoors to improve public access to the internet during this crisis. In addition, they are allowing patrons to check out mobile hotspots for at-home use. With libraries facing this increase in demand, it is important we provide them with the tools to remain a community outlet for reliable internet service.

This is why I’m a champion of the HOTSPOTS Actlegislation to increase funding for library broadband hotspots. These internet-connected devices have been a lifeline for many individuals and families.

Malvern, in Hot Springs County, provides a perfect example of the rising demand for mobile hotspots. According to the American Library Association, 35 percent of the city is without any internet access. Residents instead rely on their library for Wi-Fi and hotspots to stay connected. According to Garland County Library leaders, the hotspot devices are the most requested items in its collection, but there are only 10 available to patrons. This leaves an average of 50 people awaiting their turn to check one out.  

The HOTSPOTS Act would create a two-year, $160 million hotspot pilot program and provide states at least $1.6 million to purchase and distribute internet-connected devices to libraries in low-income and rural areas. 

Hotspot devices have recently been in the news. Governor Hutchinson announced agreements reached by the Arkansas Department of Education to purchase 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots for students without reliable internet access from mobile phone companies. This will provide additional flexibility for students in the upcoming school year.

This funding was made possible with money provided to Arkansas from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The ability to get online is an equally crucial resource for students as updated textbooks and adequate school supplies. This program will be a difference maker for many students across the state and allow them to stay connected should virtual instruction become necessary.

As founder and co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, I’ve been working with my colleagues to close the digital divide. We must do so for our rural and underserved communities to thrive in the 21st century economy, especially during this challenging time when access to a quality internet connection has become even more difficult to come by. Providing tools that improve connectivity will help Arkansans adjust to the challenges of doing more work, learning and other necessities remotely.