The urgent push to expand rural broadband
By Dwain Hebda
When it comes to the subject of broadband access, Elizabeth Bowles doesn’t pull any punches. The president and CEO of Aristotle Inc., an Internet service provider, digital product development lab, and digital marketing agency, Bowles considers such access critical on multiple fronts of education, healthcare, and commerce. “Purdue University did a study showing that for every dollar you put into rural broadband, you bring back four dollars in economic development,” she says. “That’s huge anywhere, but especially in Arkansas’s rural communities.”
Bowles is so passionate about the benefits of bringing broadband to underserved rural areas that she’s become one of the nation’s leading voices on the subject. She’s testified before Congress and Chairs the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, as well as headed national trade groups pushing the issue before decision makers. “Broadband is an area that’s universally good for everybody, especially where there’s competition among providers,” she says. “It’s good for consumers because they have a choice. It’s good for the providers because it drives up demand. It’s good for the economy because the providers compete to bring a good service that then improves the economic development and base within that community. That’s really the aim.”
Bowles says that the widespread lack of broadband access puts rural communities at a distinct disadvantage, starting with education efforts for children. “Children who grow up in urban and suburban areas have access to resources, educational and otherwise, that children in rural and underserved communities don’t have,” says Bowles. “This creates a divide that’s not just digital, it’s also academic. Because of COVID-19, schools are closing in counties that have no way to get Internet to their children. So these kids won’t be able to do their homework, meaning they’ll fall behind—simply because they don’t have access to the Internet.
“And even when we’re not in a pandemic situation, there are so many resources and so much curriculum enrichment that are online-based. If people don’t have access to those things, they’re not being prepared for the gig economy, which is the future. In that case, we’re relegating certain segments of children to certain types of career paths. They’re starting from behind right out of the gate.”
The issue also extends to Main Street economic development, says Bowles. Communities already starving for new businesses are at a competitive disadvantage without broadband, both for fostering startups and for attracting new businesses, to say nothing about work-from-home opportunities. “From an economic development perspective, access to fixed broadband Internet is critical,” says Bowles. “I emphasize the word ‘fixed’ because a lot of rural areas have mobile broadband. But when a factory is looking at locating in a particular area, or a company is looking at opening a headquarters or a branch office, they’re assessing all of the resources available. They want to know that they can get broadband or fiber or whatever they need to their factory.
“More than that, they want to know that their employees can get broadband at home. If they can’t, the company isn’t going to be able to attract the right employees, because the employees won’t move there if their kids can’t get an education. So the lack of broadband in a community is a barrier to economic development.”
After years of banging the drum, Bowles and other rural broadband advocates have finally started to see some movement at the very highest levels of leadership in Arkansas. Last year, Governor Asa Hutchinson established the Arkansas Broadband Office within the state Department of Commerce and tasked it with implementing AR Rural Connect, which provides millions in grant money to communities to help them tackle the problem and at- tract service providers. The governor’s goal is for all Arkansas communities over 500 residents to have access to broadband by the end of 2022.
Bowles is also putting her company’s money toward making rural Arkansas on par with the rest of the state— and ahead of other rural areas nationwide. “My company is committed to doing this as fast as we possibly can,” she says. “We’ve brought in sixteen teams, crews of four employees each. The only thing preventing us from moving more quickly is the supply chain and the inability to get gear or fiber or this or that.
“We’re also creating jobs; after we build these networks, we’ll hire staff, train people who can climb towers, people who can do installations, people who can do service calls and take phone calls and run an office. We’re looking at not only expanding the broadband network itself but also educating and employing the people in these communities. Hopefully, that will encourage people to stay home rather than try to move to the city to find a job.
“I do believe everyone understands the urgency,” says Bowles. “But I think the provider industry also needs to step up and realize, if it takes you a year to put in a network, that’s a year that our kids are falling behind. The time is now.”