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Veach: Broadband access essential for rural Arkansas

11/11/2013 at 1:03 p.m.

By Randy Veach,
Arkansas Farm Bureau president

My parents were around when the “lights came on” in rural Mississippi County, meaning electricity had gotten to the countryside in the late 1930s. It was a life-changing experience.

A similar sensation swept in with telephone service to rural Arkansas, mandated in the 1930s by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), though it was many years before access was available for many. In the early days we shared a “party line,” and each home on that party line had a distinctive ring. 

The goal of the FCC’s Universal Services Act then – and remains today – was to ensure all Americans, regardless of where they live, receive quality telephone service at reasonable rates.

A combination of government involvement and entrepreneurial vigor was needed to bring those technologies to people who had been without something that was commonplace in the larger communities in our state.

We face a similar situation in 2013 with broadband access in Arkansas. Our state ranks at or near the bottom in national rankings of digital learning and broadband access. TechNet’s 2012 Broadband Index listed Arkansas 50th among all state for broadband access. The rural nature of Arkansas compounds the problem.

That does not mean to imply all of rural Arkansas is a broadband wasteland. Ritter Communications and South Arkansas Telephone offer some of the fastest connectivity speeds in the country in some of Arkansas’ most rural areas. But there are large parts of our state where adequate broadband access is still a vision.

I was fortunate to be part of the recent Connecting Arkansas Internet Conference. There, the challenges of delivering high-speed Internet to all Arkansans were debated, along with how local, regional, and state leaders from both the public and private sectors are working to address those challenges. I also serve on the Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results (FASTER) Committee, formed by Gov. Mike Beebe because of his strong support for adequate bandwidth.

From my view, our state has a lot of work to do to bring equal and adequate broadband services to our schools, businesses and rural communities. Agriculture and our rural communities are codependent. Without access to adequate broadband our rural communities will not succeed. Nor will agriculture.

In the 1960s, one farmer averaged feeding 26 people. Today, that one farmer feeds 155 people. We’ve been able to do that because of incredible expansions in livestock and crop yields, driven by research and technology. With the world’s population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, technology innovations, including broadband, will play a vital role in feeding the world. 

Without access to adequate broadband, some of our schools seem as isolated as the one-room schoolhouse of my grandparents’ generation. Today, distance learning capabilities can provide any student, regardless of location, access to the best teachers and subject matter. 

If the future difference makers for Arkansas are to come from Arkansas, we need to do everything we can to ensure our school systems are delivering what they need. Adequate broadband is central to that goal.

We should use the Universal Service Act as a template for broadband coverage and ensure that our citizens, regardless of where they live, can receive quality broadband service at reasonable rates. To do that will, once again, be a life-changing experience.

God bless you and your families. God bless our farmers and ranchers. And God bless Arkansas Farm Bureau.

Editor's Note: This column was originally published in the Nov.-Dec. issue of Front Porch magazine.

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