Digital divide

[Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series on broadband access. This week is the future of broadband and broadband access. The Van Buren County Democrat and its sister newspapers in central Arkansas, along with freelancer Jay Brakefield, collaborated on this effort.]

Certainly any discussion about broadband, once the immediacy of taking care of today’s problems with today’s infrastructure is out of the way, comes to the question of what is next? In Van Buren County, rural as it is, this has a central theme as developing broadband to its outlying areas – as we saw last week with the issues of bringing broadband to school students – has that additional complexity. People in the county are not clustered as tightly as in more urban environments, hence the cost of running cable out to a given location, a home or business, is that much more expensive.

At the same time, an inevitability exists. The Arkansas Legislature during this session just passed a bill expanding the state’s telecommunications act to allow municipal government to build broadband infrastructure should it come down to that. This bill, reflection Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s legislative agenda to increase broadband access in the state is one indicator of broadband’s likely growth in the state, and in turn Van Buren County.

A further indicator of that inevitability is Petit Jean Electric Cooperative Corporation’s recent decision to get into the broadband business, adding that service to its already existing electrical service.

What this means: “Within the next five years everybody who wants broadband access is going to have it,” Petit Jean CEO/General Manager Michael Kirkland said.

Kirkland said the decision came from a survey of Petit Jean members who were by and large in favor of the electric cooperative supplying broadband. The concern from there was the expense, since the company did not want electric rates subsidizing broadband rates. That point is being met by a specialized firm, Conexon, out of Kansas City, which specializes, first in rural broadband access and second, in applying for the rural broadband grants which make infrastructure construction feasible, as well as dealing with the myriad regulations which go into broadband infrastructure.

And the legal requirements, beginning at the federal level, are just the start. Kirkland said a great deal of planning has to take place before the first spade is turned in installing the broadband systems, including acquiring the proper material, such as cable, and being able to plug in to a bulk system where the Petit Jean structure will plug into the internet.

Construction of the Petit Jean broadband network will not start before this summer, and may be as late as the end of September as all the regulatory and logistic requirements are met.

The “Why?” of it all is fairly apparent. Broadband, as was seen in last week’s article on broadband in education, is not just a necessity, but a growing necessity. Certainly in areas like education, broadband is a growing need, but in business as well, as Van Buren County works to attract businesses, and for that matter business people, to the county.

Kirkland points out how the recent pandemic and more people working from home, has been used to show that the remote worker will become more common. It is conceivable that Van Buren County, with its low cost of living, could be very attractive to someone able to work remotely provided the broadband capacity is there to support them.

One person who understands broadband as able to provide for business is Will Dawson, whose business Dawson Aircraft at the Clinton Airport parts out airplanes and sells parts all over the world. Dawson said he made the decision to create an online parts catalog in 2003, which led to the store going online in 2005 with 3,000 parts in inventory.

Since then business has grown, with today nearly 15,000 parts in inventory and sales being made world wide. Trevor Dawson, who oversees sales for the company, counted down a laundry-list of overseas clients just in the past 60 days, including Israel, Brazil, Germany, and closer-in Canada and Mexico. All of these customers began with an online interaction, he said.

Will Dawson said infrastructure is critical and the need for this business is growing, just as the parts inventory numbers increase. More computers inside the business, and more employees, are used to process on-hand parts into online inventory, and each time that happens a signal, a data packet, is sent across the internet. Meanwhile efforts to grow the business have more-and-more people using the online store in turn increasing demand on that bandwidth.

In order to support operations at Dawson Aircraft, two internet connections are used, one as primary and the second, a lower-tier DSL connection, as a secondary back-up in case the first fails. The point being without an internet connection, business slows.

“[Broadband] is our lifeline, our gateway to the world,” Dawson said.

Kirkland saw this same sort of potential as Petit Jean surveyed its clients for broadband need. He tells the story of one case, a rural store owner, who due to lack of broadband was not able to reliably process credit or debit cards for sales. This was, the store owner told him, costing business.

Nor does the need for broadband end with commerce. Area churches, as one example, more and more use broadband to broadcast services and other events in order to provide effective outreach. A quick survey of area churches had all broadcasting at least Sunday services, with other events being broadcast as well. This became especially important nearly a year ago when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit and people simply were not attending services due to social distancing concerns.

And the problems of connectivity are being weighed in other areas. Much as Kirkland points out the problems and hurdles of getting broadband-supporting cable out to rural users, other entities are looking at alternatives.

Starlink, a subset of the Elon Musk -created Space X, is currently building an infrastructure for satellite -based internet access, essentially internet access roughly the same as satellite radio. It is a $10 billion project.

By the end of this year, although delays may move it to 2022, Spacelink plans to have 1,440 satellites in orbit in support of this infrastructure. It currently has 1,015 in orbit.

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