Actions are being taken to bring high-speed Internet service to everyone in Clark County, from Arkadelphia to all rural areas.
Members of the Economic Development Sub-committee of the Clark County Strategic Plan met at noon Monday to hear a presentation from Kim Tran of Connect-Arkansas, a private, non-profit organization designed to “link all Arkansans, especially in rural areas, to the Internet.”
Gov. Mike Beebe signed the Connect Arkansas Broadband Act into law in March 2007 to ensure the creation of a competitive broadband service to all Arkansans. Broadband Internet is four times faster than dial-up service — what most Internet users in rural areas have.
Strategic Goal No. 6 of the plan includes developing a comprehensive plan to provide broadband Internet service throughout the county. The plan will detail the infrastructure requirements, capital needs, management and organizational support necessary for such services.
Tran told the subcommittee that steps were taken before implementing a state-wide plan of bringing broadband to Arkansas. “They looked at all 50 states” to come up with a policy to increase education and usage of the Internet, she said. “The issue with usage in Arkansas communities is access.”
While Connect-Arkansas is not an Internet provider, its mission is to connect rural communities with programs intended to reach its final goal of allowing all rural and urban residents with broadband Internet.
While lawmakers are saying access is an issue, she said, Connect-Arkansas “puts data together” to move forward with educating the public about broadband. Through the education process, Connect-Arkansas “works with all 75 counties in the state to implement strategic planning to bring Internet to communities.”
The final step in the process is implementing the plan. “We work to facilitate the plan by looking at local, state and federal sources for funding.”
The entire process, she said, takes about six to nine months.
While there are no countywide statistics that show how many residents of Clark County do not have broadband access, Tran noted that the plan was executed in Kentucky three years ago.
“Over a period of four years they were actually able to increase usage from 60 percent to 93 percent.” To date, she said, “Arkansas is sitting at 82 percent” of those who use the Internet. “Some areas are more desperate than others.” Tran said that, even if the access is available and people do not use it, the statistics do not show up on the broadband availability map.
Looking at the map of Internet coverage, Dr. Wesley Kluck, chair of the CCSP, noted that “it looks like most of Clark County has no coverage — it’s about 10 percent usage.”
Tran said broadband entrepreneurs “keep popping up,” giving a supply for any demand that could arise. There are currently 80 providers in the state that are “engaged in the initiative” to bring statewide broadband access. “There is a significant amount of demand” in the state, but providers cannot reach out to rural areas until the service becomes available. If there is no demand, Connect-Arkansas acts as a match-making role by helping communities “interface” with providers. By performing a feasibility study, the providers can find out if they should and how to try getting their services to rural areas.
Keith Runyan, a CCSP member, suggested using college students enrolled in marketing classes from both universities. Instead of paying surveyors, “we could intersect with the marketing classes.” CCSP Anita
Williams noted that there are more than one class available for this research.
“We also have a marketing and research class,” she said.
Tran said the studies will either be done on a county or regional basis. “We are working with Beebe to see if a state rollout plan will be available to secure funding for each community.”
While usage may be an issue, Tran noted all people will eventually begin using the Internet once they find a need for it.
She compared it to electricity. “There was a time when people without electricity didn’t want anything to do with it,” she said. “This is similar — this is the Internet version of that.”
Kluck asked what spurs interest to make people want the Internet. Tran said Town Hall meetings in rural areas are a starter, and performing marketing and research with local providers.
She said creating awareness “shaves off” the time for bringing the end product of county-wide broadband access. Connect-Arkansas has been working in Columbia, Faulkner and Desha counties, and is now getting results from those places.
The committee approved the application for a grant to have a broadband assessment done for the county if other money does not become available.