AT&T and two other telecos are receiving more than $322 million in federal funding to provide high-speed internet service in areas of Arkansas that currently aren’t reached by copper or fiber-optic cables. The wireless technology is not new. Dozens of homegrown Internet service providers have used it to reach rural Arkansans — some for more than a decade.
“In these rural parts of these counties, there is nothing out there right now,” said Ed Drilling, president of AT&T Arkansas, which will use wireless technology for the connections.
Drilling said the wireless product is one solution for those parts of the state where residents rely on aging telephone lines or cellphones to connect to the Internet.
AT&T’s move into the space — and the millions in federal funding supporting it — concerns existing wireless Internet providers who say they were ineligible for the same subsidies from the Federal Communication Commission’s Connect America program. The telcos using the federal dollars to connect Arkansas customers via wires are CenturyLink and Windstream.
The FCC estimates that two customers per every home and business will be connected. The three companies have committed to connecting a total of 128,500 homes and businesses, meaning that roughly 257,000 Arkansans will be affected by the new installations.
About 550,000 Arkansans don’t have access to the sort of speeds the companies are required to offer, according to wireline data from the National Broadband Map. Arkansas ranked 34th in the country for broadband speed, according to the map, but that ranking was based on an older definition of broadband that much of rural Arkansas barely met when the data was collected in 2014. According to more recent data collected by the website broadbandnow.com, Arkansas now ranks 48th in the nation in terms of the percentage of its population that has access to broadband speeds of at least 25 megabits per second.
During legislative meetings held to find a solution for low broadband availability around the state, providers said it costs tens of thousands of dollars per mile to lay cable, depending on the terrain.
That makes it hard to make money or break even on new installations to rural Arkansas, where homes can be miles apart and where many will choose not to pay for Internet access.
“You can view it as what the railroads meant to these cities in the 19th century and what electricity meant in the early part of [the 20th] century, and what interstates mean in terms of connectivity and what a city needs to thrive,” Drilling said. “Unlike electricity, you don’t have pretty much the guarantee that every one of those living units is going to take the service.” He added that AT&T has the infrastructure in place to provide the wireless technology, which customers will pay to access.