The economic chasm that has opened up between rural and urban/ suburban communities has grown increasingly stark as access to broadband internet has become ever more critical to economic viability. Many rural communities either have little access to broadband of any sort, or can only access it through a single provider, which often charges incredibly high prices for modest speeds.
As more of our society moves online, we need to treat the internet as a public utility, just like phone service or electricity. The rural corners of our district serve as perfect examples of how communities that lack adequate broadband access decline both economically and socially. Arkansas as a whole ranks 48th in terms of high speed internet connectivity, and 30% of our state’s population is underserved in terms of this access. When broken down between larger cities and towns and rural areas, this underserved population is shown to be concentrated almost entirely in rural areas. Cities like Little Rock and Conway have nearly 100% connectivity at high speeds while Van Buren County has only about 7% at the same speeds. Those families lucky enough to have internet often pay twice the price for half the speed that a family in Little Rock would.
Currently there has been legislation proposed, such as the New Deal Broadband Act, that would authorize new loans and grants for rural broadband development through the USDA. Passing such a law with a clearly defined timeframe would provide more certainty to these regions who have heard promises of broadband from their government before. We must also couple this legislation with stricter enforcement of antitrust laws and finally break up monopolies that deprive consumers of choice and drive up prices at will.
Instead of tossing piles of cash at Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast, we should make FCC funds available to smaller local entities like cities, local co-ops, or locally owned companies, and ensure that they spend the money to bring true high-speed broadband of 25 megabits per second to every home.
The economic and social benefits of a program of rural broadband expansion would dwarf the cost of implementing it. Individuals would no longer have to leave the communities in which their families have lived for generations simply to start a business or provide their children with a quality education. While reviving rural communities is a long term process, it is imperative that we make the crucial first step of recognizing that high speed internet access is a public good to which every American has a right.