Arkansas Working to Rise on Digital Index

In the information age, a rural state like Arkansas is having a tough time keeping up with the competition.

The 2010 State New Economy Index, which in November ranked states based on their ability to compete in the present economy, listed Arkansas as 46th in the nation under its "digital economy" category, beating only New Mexico, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi.

The index measures the state's percentage of population online, use of information technology to deliver state government services, deployment of broadband telecommunications and health information technology.

But the situation seems to be improving: In 2009, Arkansas was 49th on the list. Connect Arkansas, a Little Rock-based organization dedicated to improving the state's digital economy, was created in 2007 to address the issue of the digital economy.

"Right now we show 92 percent of the state's population has access to wireline or fixed wireless," said Emerson Evans, program training specialist for Connect Arkansas.

But if we're that connected, why are we so low on the list? Because, Evans said, Arkansas has a lot of sparsely populated areas and many residents who aren't interested in using the Internet for business.

"We think that, really, the key is education," Evans said.

"We're trying to show relevancy through the practical application of the Internet," said Jamie Moody, marketing director for the company. The company is also using $7.8 million in federal stimulus money it received in 2010 to further its sustainable broadband and mapping projects.

In urban areas like Little Rock, more restaurants and public areas are trying to draw in customers and spark Internet commerce with free Wi-Fi services.

In 2004, Arkansas Business reported 50 Wi-Fi hot spots available in the state. The year before, there were 12. Now, there are countless.

But there's no such thing as a free lunch. In fact, "free" Wi-Fi is a costly product.

The Little Rock National Airport, for example, pays Windstream Corp. $1,151.65 per month so airport customers can browse without paying.

Bigger corporations like AT&T tend to woo corporations, such as McDonald's and Starbucks, into agreements for company-wide Wi-Fi.

On the local side, Aristotle Inc. of Little Rock creates signals for clients including Little Rock's River Market District, the Little Rock Zoo, Mountain Harbor Resort & Spa on Lake Ouachita and the Willie L. Hinton Downtown Neighborhood Resource Center in Little Rock.

Some of the Wi-Fi service, like the zoo's, is provided on a pro-bono basis. The money Aristotle loses on these endeavors, said President L. Elizabeth Bowles, is considered philanthropy.

"That's a donation we make to the community," she said.

But not everyone gets Aristotle's services for free, and in 2007 the wireless company beat out AT&T and Comcast for the rights to provide $450-a-month service to the River Market area, stretching from the main River Market building to the river, along President Clinton Avenue and down to the Interstate 30 Bridge.

Who pays for it? Not the River Market. The Arkansas Young Professionals Network originally contracted Aristotle in 2007, and demand for the service was high right away.

"When we turned the system on to test it a few weeks ago, we immediately had over 200 visitors try to access the service," Bowles said in 2007.

But problems were ahead: After making five payments on the service, AYPN folded.

"We supported it for free for six months," Bowles said. "We bore all the costs. We didn't want the city to be without it."

Fortunately for Aristotle, the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau then stepped in and took the contract, and it has kept it to this day, renewing earlier in 2011.

And why would LRCVB want to shoulder this cost?

"LRCVB supports it in order to promote people to come to the city," Bowles said. "In municipalities, you have an entity whose job it is to increase business in a particular area."

LRCVB is primarily concerned with conventions, and free wireless connections are a big draw for those, Bowles said.

"Merchants in the city make a great deal of money when conventions come," she said. "Larger conventions look for free WI-Fi in the [Statehouse] Convention Center and surrounding areas. LRCVB made the decision that free Wi-Fi needed to be offered in order to encourage investment in the area."

Two Arkansas cities, Paragould and Conway, have built broadband networks themselves to make sure their citizens are covered. Conway's Conway Corp. is not regulated and is now facing competition from AT&T's U-verse system.

"It's forced Conway Corp. to up their game," Evans said. "They bumped up my broadband speed without telling or charging me."

But government agencies or corporations aren't always available to help nudge along connectivity.

"Oftentimes, in restaurants, it's free because they are financing it in the interest of business," Bowles said.

Other times, networks are advertising-supported, a situation that users uniformly hate. Argenta Wireless, for example, once beat out Aristotle to provide ad-backed Wi-Fi services for Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock. Since Argenta Wireless' tower was struck by lightning earlier this year, however, the field has been without Wi-Fi service.

"These [ad-based] networks are not as desirable," Bowles said. "The ads are intrusive, and you can't use the network without getting ads. Customers would rather use their AT&T data plan than get on an ad-supported network."

Data plans represent another way users both urban and rural can connect wirelessly to the Internet, and Connect Arkansas shows that coverage to be almost ubiquitous.

Talking About Generations
So if users can just use their 3G or 4G Smart Phones to connect, why bother with wireless service at all? It turns out this can be a point of contention for Wi-Fi providers.

"It's less of a problem in Arkansas than on the East Coast and in Chicago or L.A.," Bowles said. "But people download a lot of data, so all of the wireless carriers decided to cap that data."

The data cap tends to be a few gigabytes, or the size of storing a half-dozen feature-length movies. Moreover, data streaming from programs like Netflix can also quickly exceed the data transfer limit, inflating telephone bills.

"This is increasingly a business model for Wi-Fi: 3G or 4G offloading," Bowles said. "It allows you to take five gigabytes of data, offload it from cell networks and onto free Wi-Fi networks, alleviating the burden on the cell phone."

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."