FOX16 Investigates: Arkansas receives failing grade for internet access in rural areas

Investigates

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.- While COVID-19 is threatening safety inside the classroom staying home for virtual classes will be detrimental to thousands of kids in Arkansas because their WiFi simply isn’t up to speed. 

The digital divide in the Natural State is so bad a recent national survey ranked Arkansas the second-worst in the country when it comes to student’s internet access at home. It found about half of all students don’t have access to high-speed internet. 

Currently, the state is calling for blended learning, where schools have to be prepared to switch to remote classes in the event of an outbreak.

Some families fear their kids will miss out on the education they deserve. 

“We have satellite internet,” Regina Irizarry explained. “If they were to be doing zoom classrooms and in the middle of a class and it rained, then my kids would be shut off.”

Irizarry and her family live in Buckner, where satellite internet is the only option keeping the small, South Arkansas town connected. 

She says her two sons struggled last school year since their internet wasn’t up to speed and it meant online classes came with a much steeper learning curve. 

Despite her efforts, she says there’s no way to get the high-speed internet since the town can’t find a provider that’s willing to bring in broadband. 

“My kids stand to suffer and that’s not something I’m willing to accept lying down,” Irizarry added. 

A lot of schools are also dealing with students who don’t have a computer at home. Some districts using Cares Act funding to get students not only a device but a WiFi hot spot. It’s better than nothing, but still, a setback since typically no cell service goes hand in hand with no high-speed internet. 

At the Capital Senator Missy Irvin, (R-Mountain View),  knows no policy can fix the digital divide by the time school starts. 

“I am concerned for the school year,” she said. 

Sen. Irvin is behind multiple state grants to bring high speed internet to rural communities.

“We have to start now because we are years behind,” Irvin explained. 

One of those grants is the Arkansas Rural Connect program. There’s a total of $25 million dollars earmarked for the program, but the catch is an area has to have more than 500 people living there to qualify and an internet provider has to be willing to take on the job. 

“You have to also look at it from the business perspective and the internet providers. If it were something that was huge profitability in that i think it would have been solved by now,” she added. 

Irvin compares it to the push to get electricity saying people shouldn’t be balanced over profits.

“At some point, you have to say this is the right thing to do for my state, this is the right thing to do for my customers,” Irvin stated. 

At this rate the chances of the Irizarry’s getting the connection they need are slim. 

“We may load up and go sit in a McDonald’s parking lot or something in town and do a zoom classroom,” Irizarry said.

Currently there are about 60 internet service providers in Arkansas. We reached out to the 5 companies with the most customers and asked about expansion plans to rural areas.

AT&T sent the following statement:

We consistently look for ways to enhance our Arkansas networks. In fact, we’ve invested more than $650 million during 2017-2019 alone. Through the Connect America Fund initiative, we’ve committed to offering service to 1.1 million additional rural homes and small businesses by 2020, including in Arkansas. We are achieving this by deploying fixed wireless technology and other technologies, which are currently available in some parts of the area today. 

When you look at our network and internet access, it must be viewed holistically including wireless and wired connections.

Through the Connect America Fund initiative, we’re committed to offering service to 1.1 million additional rural homes and small businesses by 2020 by deploying fixed wireless technology, among other technologies.

We led in innovating in LTE-based fixed wireless technologies, as well as next generation 5G wireless services, and expect to see the industry continue to progress.

AT&T statment

CenturyLink sent the following statment:

Sparsely populated areas are difficult for any communications provider to serve due to the costs of building and maintaining the network infrastructure. CenturyLink has made significant investments in our network to bring broadband access to every corner of our service territory where it is economically feasible. We’re always looking at ways to expand or enhance our broadband services, which includes working closely with policymakers on creative public-private partnerships that encourage broadband investment and bring high-speed internet services to more homes and businesses in Arkansas.

CenturyLink Statement

Comcast sent the following statement:

We are very interested in pursuing network buildouts in Arkansas, and are actively looking at various opportunities to bridge the digital divide in rural communities. 

In Tennessee and Georgia, for example, we recently announced successful rural broadband rollouts where we have begun to bridge the digital divide for both residents and businesses.

As for Buckner, we do not currently have a franchise agreement to serve its residents and businesses.  Most of our coverage is in and around Little Rock. 

Comcast Statement

A spokesperson for Cox told us the company is centered on coverage in Northwest Arkansas and does not currently have the infrastructure to spread around the state. They added that expansion in rural areas is difficult since it costs millions of dollars, money that cannot be recouped when there are not enough customers getting service.

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