We are witnessing a moment of unprecedented funding to expand high-speed Internet access across the country. This is life-changing for the estimated 42 million Americans lacking access to a reliable Internet connection and their ability to participate in a modern economy.
Importantly, closing the digital divide also means making our local economies more resilient and increasing our regional competitiveness. While these conversations often can feel somewhat distant, it’s key to consider the tangible and meaningful impacts these dollars are having right here in Arkansas and across the heartland to improve our economy.
The Arkansas State Broadband Office recently launched its Digital Skills and Opportunity Survey as part of an effort to better understand the state’s digital divide.
Arkansas received more than $840,000 in federal funds through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to study the state’s digital divide, create a plan to address its digital skills gap and learn more about the challenges that keep Arkansans from affording and using high-speed internet.
ASBO has contracted with Heartland Forward, a Bentonville-based nonprofit organization, to coordinate engagement efforts with stakeholders. In addition to disseminating surveys online and in paper formats, officials will also host a series of community listening sessions, focus groups and interviews to engage with communities targeted through the plan, according to a press release.
Monroe County has joined several organizations in a Broadband Accelerate Program, seeking to find ways to improve broadband internet in the area.
Monroe County is one of four counties to join with Heartland Forward, The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society Accelerate Program for a 16 week program to instruct community leaders on building a broadband infrastructure plan.
Angie Cooper, the executive vice president of Heartland Forward, also noted the importance of this program.
“It is crucial that Tennesseans have access to reliable, high-speed internet to fully participate in work, education and healthcare, but too many families across the state are still lacking the connection they need,” said Cooper. “We are proud to partner with TNECD and the Benton Institute to work on the ground with Tennessee counties to find community-led solutions for expanding high-speed internet access. We hope these leaders leave the program with renewed enthusiasm and a concrete plan for getting their citizens fully connected.”
Community leaders on Wednesday gathered in Washington, D.C., to push for keeping a program that helps connect low-income families to the internet.
Advocates are banking on the strong bipartisan support for the Affordable Connectivity Program on the Hill — and its popularity among those who have signed up — to ensure the program survives after funding dries up next year.
Heartland Forward’s Angie Cooper said many people still aren’t signing up for the ACP. She said they don’t believe the program is real, that it will be long-lasting, or consider it too complicated to sign up.
“For those of us who sit in Washington, how can we streamline these processes to make them easier? And if you’re on the ground, knowing what those insecurities are and being able to provide a trusted voice.”
“Here in Tennessee there are rural communities lacking access to internet and infrastructure, so I want to support those communities that need someone to advocate for them. I also want to advocate for the immigrant families here in the U.S. A lot of programs currently in place have requirements—and a lot of immigrant families aren’t able to meet those requirements because they don’t have citizenship or residency, so a lot of immigrant families are falling through the cracks.” [said Jimenez]
In August 2022, he was selected as an American Connection Corps/Regional Connectivity Fellow for Lead For America—a national nonprofit organization that trains college students to serve as full-time local government or nonprofit employees in their home communities. Fellows are placed in positions where they can directly impact challenges such as education, healthcare, economic development, environmental sustainability and social equity.
The problem with not having access to the internet is multifaceted. During the pandemic, when students had to study from home, it was an often-told story that described students, who did not have access to internet at home, sitting in the parking lots of restaurants using the businesses’ wi-fi signal to do their homework, said Solomon Graves, director of public policy at Heartland Forward, a nonprofit whose goal is to increase the productivity of the middle portions of the country.
Graves said a lack of connectivity means getting left behind.
“This is an economic development issue,” he said. “This is a quality of life issue.”
Without access to high-speed internet, Graves said, “people will be shut out of the economic development in the 21st century. That is not the world we should be living in.”
Heartland Forward is helping ARConnect reach its statewide goals. To that end, Heartland Forward is asking counties to complete a needs survey that addresses several areas such as the number of households at or below 150% of the poverty level, the number of people who are 60 years of age or older, the number of incarcerated people living in the county, the number of people living in rural areas and the number of people who are associated with racial minorities.
Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society and Heartland Forward are working on a new planning and capacity-building program to help Tennessee communities leverage historic broadband infrastructure funding for community-driven broadband expansion.
Federal investment could mean the creation of up to 150,000 broadband-related jobs, but state and local leaders must build robust apprenticeship programs and commit to diversity to make it happen.
Only 67% of Hispanic adults reported owning a computer and only 65% said they have internet service at home. The federal Affordable Connectivity Program is underutilized, but that’s a problem we can solve.
Launched in 2021, the ACC, a pillar of the American Connection Project, builds capacity in communities to get better connected to broadband internet in an increasingly digital world