New Coalition Launches to Help Close Arkansas’ Digital Divide
The Arkansas Connectivity Coalition’s first effort is Accelerate Arkansas, a 14-week intensive broadband planning program for communities to leverage incoming federal infrastructure dollars.
BENTONVILLE, Ark (July 14, 2022) – Today, a group of more than 15 local organizations committed to expanding internet access announced the formation of the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition. This is a group created to help support the state and local communities’ plan and secure the federal dollars needed to expand access and ensure high-speed internet is more accessible and affordable across the state. Convened by Heartland Forward, the coalition is made up of nonprofits, advocacy organizations, thought leaders and philanthropies, including the Arkansas Black Mayors Association, Arkansas Community Foundation, Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., Arkansas Farm Bureau, Arkansas Impact Philanthropy, Communities Unlimited, Diamond State Networks, Forward Arkansas, Holman Strategies, Runway Group, University of Arkansas-Department of Communication, University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, Research and Extension, Winrock International and Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.
The first major effort of the Coalition is the launch of Accelerate Arkansas, a planning and capacity building program developed with the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. This organization will help Arkansas communities learn how to plan and use the historic broadband infrastructure funding for community-driven broadband expansion. The inaugural pilot cohort of the program includes Cleveland County, Elaine, Hughes, West Memphis and Keo, and will begin on July 14, 2022.
“Having access to a high-speed, reliable internet service is crucial for working, learning and living in the 21st century, but too many families across Arkansas simply don’t have the connectivity they need,” said Angie Cooper, chief program officer of Heartland Forward. “The Arkansas Connectivity Coalition shares a common purpose of working to close the digital divide and ensure Arkansas is building a future that leverages high-speed internet to improve economic opportunity, education and health outcomes and effective delivery of services. We are proud to launch Accelerate Arkansas as our first initiative, a program that has already proven successful in other parts of the heartland–including the states of Illinois and Ohio–in preparing communities to use incoming funding efficiently and effectively to get people connected.”
“Reliable high-speed internet is crucial to the economic vitality of our state,” said Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston. “From schoolchildren connecting to lesson plans to businesses and industries connecting to get the job done, connectivity is no longer a luxury. For the past eight years, we have worked tirelessly to ensure that Arkansans have the skills necessary to compete – and win – in the global economy, and the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition is the latest piece of the puzzle to make that goal a reality. We are grateful to the public, private and non-profit stakeholders around the state who are working together to support efforts to ensure all Arkansans are playing on an equal technology field.”
Accelerate Arkansas will provide local leadership teams with expert support in developing broadband visions and implementation plans for their communities as new infrastructure dollars are made available through the historic passage of the federal infrastructure program as well as by the state. The opportunity is made possible through a collaboration between the University of Arkansas, which will coordinate survey research and oversee administrative support, and a series of organizations across the state that will provide technical support to cohort teams. These organizations include Communities Unlimited, Winrock International, the Arkansas Black Mayors Association and University of Arkansas-Division of Agriculture, Research and Extension. The Accelerate program is being funded by the Arkansas Community Foundation, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, Diamond State Networks, Forward Arkansas, Heartland Forward and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.
Arkansas communities stand to receive a significant amount of funding for broadband infrastructure enhancement, thanks to the recent passage of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure plan. Community planning support offered through initiatives like Accelerate Arkansas will help even the playing field so that more cities and counties – regardless of size or staffing – can prepare to submit for capital dollars to help transform broadband in their communities.
The program works to prepare communities for establishing and implementing a full-scale broadband connectivity vision. Through over 30 hours of expert counsel provided by the Benton Institute, the program offers structured engagement for communities to identify broadband goals, gather data, understand available funding options and target capital dollars to support implementation.
“We are honored to collaborate with the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition and Heartland Forward to work with unserved and underserved communities in a process modeled after a successful program designed by the Blandin Foundation for Minnesota,” said Adrianne B. Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.