Arkansas Working to Rise on Digital Index

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Sep. 12, 2011 12:00 am  

But back in the rural areas, free Wi-Fi "hot spots" are scarce and broadband Internet through companies like Windstream can be expensive, even as Windstream is using $120.9 million in federal stimulus money to expand rural broadband routes across 13 states. So some customers are forced to turn to fixed wireless and satellite services.

"In some cases, it's their last option," Evans said.

Unfortunately, Evans added, satellite service from providers like Hughes Network Systems, Comcast, SkyWay USA and WildBlue Communications Inc., though universally available, can be expensive and unreliable, and fixed-wireless programs are mysterious.

"Fixed wireless is a wireless router on steroids, human growth hormones and any other beefing-up type of drugs you can think of," Evans said. "It's more powerful and serves to a larger area, but it's the same concept."

The strength of fixed wireless signals dwarfs the free signals used in places like the airport and River Market. Evans said the concept was once tossed around for allowing entire cities to have wireless connectivity, but by the time Evans joined Connect Arkansas, the technology seemed to be dead.

"You just stopped hearing about it around 2008," he said. "It's not dead, but thriving in some areas. In a lot of places, it's the only way to serve broadband to a lot of rural areas where it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to bury cell lines, etc."

Aristotle is a fixed-wireless provider, and service also comes from companies like Black Sheep Computing in Walnut Ridge, Genesis Broadband Wireless in Forrest City, Urban Wireless in Little Rock and Vue Wireless in various locations. But sometimes, the service is provided by a single person.

"They are one-man shops," Evans said.

These one-man providers spend $10,000 to $20,000 on a tower setup, then circulate their service through word of mouth. Because of this, Evans said, Connect Arkansas' knowledge of fixed-wireless services is incomplete, especially in south and north Arkansas.

"We think there are providers in those areas, but they usually don't market it," he said.

In the end, one way or another, most Arkansans have access to the Internet, wireless or otherwise. So how can the state improve its digital economy?

Evans said it comes down to showing people that Internet use is more than just Facebook and YouTube.

"We're showing people we can use the Internet to pay our taxes online, renew our car tags, etc.," he said. "Relevancy is a huge, huge issue. Relevancy and education."



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