Weekly Columns

Arkansas students now have access to high-speed broadband in the classroom thanks to the completion of the Arkansas Public School Computer Network (APSCN) championed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. This provides students in public and charter schools across the state access to the internet for schoolwork and allows their teachers to bring in educational resources available online. 

Unfortunately, some students only experience the benefits of high-speed broadband while at school. Arkansas is among the first states to achieve 100 percent connectivity in its schools. This impressive and important achievement highlights the great need and continued work necessary beyond the walls of our schools to accomplish connectivity for all Arkansans. 

Arkansas is ranked as the 48th most connected state according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As a rural state, there are more challenges to providing access to the minimum speed of wired broadband that experts agree is functional: 25 megabits per second.

As a founder and co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, a group launched in 2016 to strengthen broadband infrastructure and deployment across the country, I’m leading efforts to extend broadband service to Arkansans all across the state.

The co-chairs of the caucus recently urged President Donald Trump to include dedicated, stand-alone funding for broadband deployment in an infrastructure proposal. In a letter to the President, we encouraged him to prioritize funding for broadband deployment to help close the digital divide that exists, especially in rural America.

This follows efforts initiated by the caucus last year calling on the administration to prioritize policies that will promote high-speed broadband in an infrastructure plan. The letter we sent was signed by more than 40 of our colleagues.

There is widespread support in Congress for improving broadband deployment, and the White House is on board too.

In a recent speech at the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention, President Trump expressed his support for rural connectivity and signed two executive orders to expand broadband to rural America. These executive orders will help streamline and expedite requests by cutting red tape to encourage private sector investment in high-speed internet. 

I’m pleased to see the administration is joining our efforts to improve rural broadband. Having the ability to get online is as essential as having modern roads and bridges and it’s a key component of economic development.

For every $5 billion invested in broadband infrastructure, 250,000 jobs are created; and with every percentage point increase in new broadband distribution, employment expands by 300,000 jobs. Yet, according to the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, one in ten Americans lacks access to sufficient broadband. In rural America, it’s even higher at 30 percent.

Broadband investment strengthens our economy and expands opportunities for healthcare, agriculture and education. 

Arkansas students shouldn’t have to rely on high-speed internet access only at school to complete their homework and expand their horizons. They deserve to continue to hone the skills they learn in the classroom at home, but that requires expanding broadband access. Increasing the availability of affordable, high-speed internet will close the digital divide. I’m committed to working with my colleagues to accomplish this goal.