Arkansas has a telecom and internet service provider industry that has been, well, a little busy lately. When stay-at-home orders were issued at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the utility that probably caused the most concern for practically everyone – governments, businesses, educators, parents, workers, healthcare professionals – was the internet.
Arkansas’ expanding group of telecom and internet service provider companies did its best to provide the critical connectivity needed to keep our state going. From home offices to living room classrooms, to school districts, hospitals, colleges, and from large corporations down to the local coffee shop, we made sure business, learning, healthcare and work of every kind that required internet access, continued.
That said, Arkansas’ rural geography, combined with significant income disparities between communities, leaves many Arkansans without access to true high-speed broadband internet. We have to bridge the digital divide in our state. Most policymakers recognize that access to, and affordability of, true high-speed broadband internet is not a luxury or convenience, but is equally as important as having access to public utilities like water and electricity, which means we have more bridges to build to reach everyone.
Policymakers and business leaders sometimes disagree about how much, where, why and when to invest in infrastructure. But the need to invest in broadband internet infrastructure in Arkansas is clear. Five reasons stand out:
- Economic Development. The Mid-South region is always competing for new business. Investing in broadband infrastructure and access puts us in the game. We become competitive. Access to broadband supported by a thriving telecommunications industry brings business to our state. As telecom providers begin to discover, engineer and implement new services and products here in Arkansas, like the new Ritter Communications Data Technology Center, our state becomes a more attractive choice for new businesses.
- Education. Keeping our schools in session, keeping educators teaching and keeping our children learning requires access to the best internet connectivity in our rural and urban communities alike. Standardized testing required by the state demands significant bandwidth. Reliable and high-capacity internet is critical to our education system. Falling behind in education limits future opportunities for all Arkansans.
- Health and Wellness. Our internet infrastructure supports medical imaging, electronic medical records and telemedicine, and provides rural communities with access to medical specialists via video conferencing. Hospitals have IT infrastructure and critical data that must be stored in secure, resilient data centers. Timely access to that data can be a life or death issue. Internet connectivity and capacity can be vital to our health.
- Employment. The telecom and internet industry in our state employs thousands. Rapid industry growth means we are constantly creating new job opportunities. And we aren’t just creating jobs, we are supporting high-paying careers for technicians, engineers, customer service specialists, salespeople and others in related industries such as construction and manufacturing that support our efforts.
- Strong Arkansas Businesses. Finally, high-quality, high-speed, accessible internet keeps Arkansas businesses running strong and supports e-commerce, remote work, video conferencing, productivity and efficiency. The fastest, most reliable and readily accessible broadband is not optional for a viable business sector, it’s a requirement.
In recognition of these five important community needs, the telecommunications industry is investing heavily in improving access and affordability. Traditional regional providers like Ritter Communications are expanding into new communities. Rural electric cooperatives are leveraging their existing infrastructure and building new networks to extend service to our most rural Arkansans. Large national companies are investing billions to upgrade their networks. Cellular providers are upgrading to 5G to improve access in urban areas. Arkansas is using federal CARES Act funding to encourage public-private partnerships between municipalities and internet providers, and start-up companies are launching low-orbit satellite constellations to ensure ubiquitous coverage. So, while we’re working independently, this collective effort and investment will expand consumer and business access to broadband internet, while the resulting increased competition will improve affordability.
So, has our internet infrastructure become just as vital to our economic survival as good roads, water and electricity? Yes. And, as an industry working together with municipalities, other utility companies and state officials, we will make sure no one gets left behind.
Alan Morse is the chief executive officer of Ritter Communications.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in op-eds are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Arkansas Money & Politics or About You Media Group.