One reason why the South remained solidly Democratic during the mid-20th century was the enduring gratitude to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who brought electricity to the poor, rural parts of the region.
According to one historical account, “Although nearly 90 percent of urban dwellers had electricity by the 1930s, only 10 percent of rural dwellers did. Private utility companies, who supplied electric power to most of the nation’s consumers, argued that it was too expensive to string electric lines to isolated rural farmsteads. Anyway, they said, most farmers were too poor to be able to afford electricity.”
It’s hard to imagine that there was so much inequality when it came to such an important resource.
But fast-forward to the present, and you’ll find similar disparities in who has access to a broadband Internet connection — and for the same reasons.
Last year, the Pew Internet Project found that “half of all adult Americans who live in non-rural areas can get online with a fast connection at home or work. By contrast, just more than one-third of rural Americans can do this.”
The gap is actually worse than that, in terms of affordability and choice. Just like the electricity providers of the 1930s, internet service providers are reluctant to extend their services to poorer, more isolated areas.
And that means it is easier and cheaper to get a high-speed Internet hook-up in Boston, Mass., than in Boston, Ark. Even within Arkansas, broadband is more accessible in Little Rock than in Little Red.
While at first glance, broadband Internet may not appear to be as crucial as electricity, it certainly has become an indispensable resource in education, commerce and health care. Arkansas cannot expect to be able to effectively compete in any field without it.
In fact, Arkansas is already behind other Southern states in recognizing the problem and addressing it the way Roosevelt addressed electrification.
Last year, for instance, Georgia launched a program called BRIDGE (Broadband Rural Initiative to Develop Georgia’s Economy) that will distribute up to $5 million in zero-percent loans to projects that bring broadband access to underserved rural areas.
More notably, Kentucky is receiving considerable attention for its “Prescription for Innovation,” which includes the goal of making broadband connections universally available by the end of this year. They are well on their way: Since the plan was implemented in 2004, statewide broadband Internet access has increased by 36 percent, and now it’s available in 83 percent of Kentucky homes.
That’s a great example to follow, and after some inquiries to see if anyone in Arkansas was working on this issue, I learned that one group will indeed propose an initiative modeled after Kentucky’s program.
“We settled on the Kentucky approach, and we have drafted a piece of legislation called ConnectArkansas,” said James Winningham, the organizing chair of the Arkansas Broadband Initiative, which has been meeting quietly and informally to discuss how to expand broadband access and educate the public about its advantages.
ABI is a public/private coalition comprised of people who work in government, education, telecommunications and other fields. Yet they don’t officially represent their agencies or companies, cautions Winningham.
Last week, members of the ABI presented their ideas to some state legislators, who reacted positively, according to Winningham.
State Rep. Daryl Pace, who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Advanced Communications and Information Technology, confirmed the meeting and told me that “we may see five bills filed within the next 10 days” to advance broadband access in Arkansas.
The first step might be to assess the extent of the problem, since there are no statistics documenting the unsatisfied demand for broadband in the state’s rural areas. Expanding the network quickly will be more challenging, since it may depend on tax incentives that will be difficult to pass, now that so many tax cuts have already been approved during this legislative session.
And while it is important to respect the interests of the Internet service providers (just as Roosevelt worked with private utilities to bring electricity to rural areas), Arkansas lawmakers should ensure that the goal of universal broadband access is preserved. In states like Tennessee, critics charge that the telecommunications companies are lobbying for the ability to cherry-pick where they offer service, allowing them to bypass low-income or rural areas.
Officials here say the goal is affordable broadband for everyone in Arkansas.
“I don’t think there is anybody who isn’t interested in finding a way to deploy broadband to every citizen in the state,” said John Ahlen, president of the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority.
“Broadband is as important to the economy of the future as highways are to the economy of today,” Winningham said.