Weekly Columns

The urgency for expanded broadband deployment is unmistakable. High-speed internet has become a necessity that has kept Arkansans connected throughout the COVID-19 emergency. Telework, distance learning and expanded telehealth opportunities exposed the pronounced need communities in Arkansas and across the country have for reliable broadband services. As co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, I’m working to build on this momentum.

Last year, Congress delivered millions of dollars to help close the digital divide. We approved funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program. Money from this initiative has been invested in Arkansas to support high-speed broadband infrastructure in Baxter, Marion, Stone, Pope and Van Buren counties.

We created a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) telehealth pilot program in the bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that offers grants for health care providers so they can purchase equipment to help continue serving the needs of patients through telehealth services. 

Telehealth has been critical for Arkansans to safely continue receiving medical care without having to make a trip to the doctor’s office. Many providers, especially in rural areas don’t have the tools and resources to expand their connectivity capacity, so this money has made a real difference in keeping folks healthy during COVID-19.

I recently spoke with a Bentonville resident who shared with me that expanded telehealth opportunities have opened doors to get her brother the help he needs by connecting him with a medical specialist across the country. Now we must ensure that all patients continue to have access to this care delivery system. Broadband deployment is an important first step in that process. We cannot allow connectivity issues to come between a patient and effective care. Telehealth will continue to play an increasingly important role in the future of health care delivery.

One of the long-standing and well-known problems with broadband deployment is the lack of reliable broadband coverage maps. We must ensure that our most rural and underserved communities are accurately represented in the data because this information helps determine where we need to focus investments. Knowing where connectivity is lacking will allow us to target dollars and resources to the places that need it most. 

Congress has recently taken steps to ensure broadband mapping is more precise like approving funding for the FCC to create better broadband maps. This is a key component to closing the digital divide. 

Reliable broadband services will also help our farmers and ranchers improve their yields with advances in precision agriculture. This technology provides producers with information that enables them to increase efficiency and productivity.

As the USDA works to build out networks for some of our most rural communities across the country, I’m pushing the agency to collaborate with the FCC in order to avoid overbuilding in any one area. It’s important that resources deployed to build out networks are used effectively and logically. 

I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Senate Broadband Caucus to advocate policies that expand access to high-speed internet. That’s the message I recently shared at a caucus event to discuss 2021 priorities, because while we’ve made progress, we know there are still many Arkansans in need of this technology to help them live, work and learn in the 21st century.