FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Being online is crucial to being able to fully participate in society in 2022, but people living in rural parts of Arkansas are disproportionately disconnected from that opportunity.
Lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels realize this. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson has made a point of bringing broadband to rural areas of Arkansas. U.S. Senator John Boozman has also advocated for the idea, saying, “If you’re not wired you simply aren’t going to grow, you aren’t going to prosper.”
More people live in cities now than ever before, but much of Arkansas is still rurally-based. The latest U.S. Census shows less than 20% of Americans live in rural areas, which are generally defined as having low population density. About 44% of Arkansans live in those low-density areas. That’s the sixth-highest figure in the country.
“Do you really want everybody to have to live in an urban area in order to have access to good broadband?” asks Jeff Cooperstein, an economist at the University of Arkansas.
Even college students, generally among the most well-connected in our society, are affected by the urban-rural broadband divide.
Anna Thompson, a student at the University of Arkansas, is staying on campus for spring break instead of going to Cedarville, a small town of about 1,400 roughly 25 minutes north of Fort Smith, to be with family.
“I would like the opportunity to spend time like spring break down there with my mom,” Thompson said. “But it’s just not as feasible as you would think. There’s no connectivity at all.”
Thompson is one of many local students on the wrong side of the divide. Both Cooperstein and his colleague, Dale Thompson, say many students of theirs struggled with remote learning during the pandemic because of a lack of connection when living at home.
“I had students in rural areas who couldn’t get onto Blackboard during the pandemic,” Cooperstein said. “It made it tough on them to do their schoolwork.”
Anna Thompson says she simply cannot learn remotely if she wants to be in Cedarville.
“I don’t have the opportunity to even study down there if I wanted to,” she said.
Data from the Pew Research Center shows rural Americans lag behind urban and suburban residents in broadband ownership — as well as smartphone, tablet and computer ownership.
That means a lot of Arkansans have to go out of their way to get connected.
“Getting to urban areas, it’s time-consuming,” Cooperstein said. “It costs gas, and we’re looking at a situation right now where saving on gas costs is important to a lot of people.”
Dale Thompson, who teaches computer engineering at the University of Arkansas, is from Wynne, about an hour west of Memphis, with a population under 10,000. His parents live without the internet at home.
“If we want internet, we actually have to go into town and use the services of a library or something like that,” Thompson said.
What’s the best way to get rural areas connected? Dale Thompson says government funding is the most likely way to do it because it’s simply not profitable for companies to set up broadband in rural areas.
“When you have very sparsely populated areas out there and you’re trying to support them, it’s just not cost-effective to get internet out to some of these rural areas,” Thompson said.
Cooperstein argues the long-term productivity gains we’d see from a more-connected population would make the investment worth it.
“Those productivity gains will then exceed the costs of the government subsidy,” he said.
Those gains fall into a category Cooperstein calls “positive externalities,” meaning they don’t just benefit the people getting broadband.
“You are bringing people into the online economy,” Cooperstein explained. “So people are going to be spending more. Hopefully, that means they’re going to be able to support local businesses that are selling their product online.”
The cost of setting up rural broadband is much higher than in urban areas. Not only is it a much larger area to cover with cables, but whoever sets them up needs to pay rent to the owner of the poles to which those cables attach.
“Who’s going to spend that kind of money to actually run internet connection all the way out on these poles to get to somebody?” asks Dale Thompson.
Going wireless is an option, but cell towers are expensive to maintain. Also, Thompson says that until full 5G and even 6G coverage is rolled out, wireless connections won’t be as strong as wired broadband.
There is progress being made to bridge the urban-rural gap, as the share of rural Americans without home broadband goes down each year.
Anna Thompson is hopeful for an accelerated expansion of rural broadband. It would let her spend more time in one of her favorite places — Cedarville.
“To be able to have the opportunity to just be on the land like that instead of in a town… It’s just so amazing,” she said. “I mean, it really is beautiful down there.”