By Maria Konnikova
When it comes to high-speed Internet, Arkansas lags behind the rest of the country, typically coming in last or next-to-last in surveys of availability and access. If you’re lucky enough to have an Internet connection, chances are the speed will be comparable to what a typical resident of, say, Manhattan last experienced in the dial-up days of Aol. As Susan Harriman, the policy and special projects director of the Arkansas Department of Education, explains, “You don’t have to drive far into the Delta for your phone to die.” In the center of Dumas, I often had no signal, and my phone had to be re-charged several times a day. Phone Internet access, a preferred way to connect in many poor regions throughout the world, is simply too expensive here. Just over 10 percent of Desha County residents can afford it. Janah chimes in: “Gulu, Uganda, probably has better Internet than Dumas.” “And it’s cheaper, too,” Harriman adds.
In 2011, under pressure from the Internet-providers lobby — a collection of private companies led by AT&T, Ritter, and others, who have branded themselves as the Arkansas Broadband Coalition for Kids — the state legislature passed a bill to amend the Telecommunications Regulatory Reform Act of 1997. Under the new provisions, the state government is barred from providing any form of telecommunication services. Arkansas had recently completed work on a new fiber-optic network that would, in theory, replace the three aging copper-wire networks that had been servicing local schools since the ’90s. But when the lobbyists’ bill passed, the network was rendered essentially useless. Only institutions of higher education, hospitals, and emergency services were allowed to use the new network capacity — not the public school systems, serving some half a million children. They would still have to buy their broadband from AT&T and the other private firms.
Recently, President Obama spoke out against restrictions like the one in Arkansas, and urged the Federal Communications Commission to overturn such anti-competitive legislation. Local municipalities, he said, are often better able to serve remote communities, like those of the Delta, than bigger providers who neither know the areas nor have much of a stake in their success.
According to the Brookings Institution, every one-percent increase in broadband saturation increases employment opportunities between 0.2 and 0.3 percent each year. Every job that’s lost to the Internet, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, is replaced by 2.6 new ones that hadn’t previously existed. The problem is that the private broadband providers don’t often want to go to the Dumases of the Delta, because there isn’t enough revenue there. Average connection speeds remain below national standards in over half the districts. And many homes are zoned out of any high-speed options.
Picture: Brandonrush (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons