Arkansas Capital Corporation:Connect Arkansas Aims For Positive Link To Internet (Sponsored Report)

While it may not be a parent’s worst nightmare, it was still a situation Kendon never expected to be faced with.

“The other day, my son asked me what a synonym was,” he said. “And for the life of me, I couldn’t remember. So we looked it up on the Internet right there, while he was doing his homework.”

Today’s children have never known a time without the Internet – it’s as intuitive to them as flipping the light switch is for previous generations of Arkansans. “For our kids, the Internet is easy,” C. Sam Walls, president of Connect Arkansas said. “They’ve grown up with it. They know how to navigate Facebook; they know how to send email.”

Surveys and focus group studies by Connect Arkansas this spring found that parents of today’s children believe their kids see the Internet as common as household appliances.

However, Walls said that Connect’s focus group efforts discovered that many adults struggle daily with allowing their children to even have Internet access in their homes because they fear what their children will “get into” on the Internet, or that they will lose control of what their children have access to because they themselves do not have a mastery of the Internet.

Thus, educating Arkansans about the Internet – the good and the bad, where access is available, and even basics such as how to use the Internet for everyday purposes – is the focus of Connect Arkansas’s efforts.

Connect Arkansas is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to the implementation of a community-based initiative to promote high-speed Internet service for all Arkansans. The Connect Arkansas Broadband Act was signed into law by Gov. Mike Beebe in 2007, to ensure the creation of a competitive high-speed internet infrastructure that will not only improve personal lives, but also the economic capabilities of all Arkansans.

So while Arkansas’s youngest generation sees the Internet as just another appliance, Walls said surveys conducted by Connect indicate that a majority of Arkansans – 56 percent in 2011 – view high-speed Internet as a luxury in relation to other utilities.

The first step in enhancing the economic capabilities of all Arkansans is to change the way they think about high-speed Internet, Walls said. “The Internet has been called ‘the most transformational technology since the advent of electricity.’ Yes, the Internet itself is revolutionary in nature, but what truly sets it apart is that it is merely the vehicle for change.”

The real change agent, he said, comes when Arkansans begin to truly realize the many uses of high-speed Internet and how it can enhance their daily lives. “The Internet transforms the way we educate our young people, the way we communicate, the way we can access healthcare, the way we search out jobs, the way we entertain our families and the way we seek out answers for any questions that might strike as at any time of the day or night,” Walls said.

Internet and Innovation

The end of World War II saw the rise of an industrial development age in Arkansas that was designed to move the economy of the state away from its agricultural roots and more toward a manufacturing base. And for two decades, that push paid off.

During that time, the per capita income in Arkansas rose from 60 percent of the national average in 1955 to 78 percent in 1978. Manufacturing employment in Arkansas as a percent of total employment increased from 27 percent to 33 percent.

Then, somewhere between the mid-1970s and today, manufacturing slumped. Worse, the per capita income in Arkansas plateaued at 78 percent.

In order to be competitive in today’s global economy, we must adapt to the opportunities of today, Walls said.

“The impact of widespread Internet adoption is rapidly changing the world as we know it,” he said. “People today have access to the entire world regardless of where they may live. People can communicate freely in the exchange of ideas and knowledge or engage in commerce with far away locations.

“Imagine what we recently witnessed during the Arab Spring when young people utilized the Internet to bring about change in their countries. Imagine the wealth and job opportunities we see created every day when entrepreneurs take advantage of this innovation. Google as an example is barely 14 years old and yet has 33,000 employees and a value of $149 billion and saw the opportunities afforded by the Internet. That’s a lot of people who are able to go to work and provide for their families based on something that was developed within a few short years,” Walls said.

As a state we have the the ingrediants to be successful in this new economy, Walls said, noting that Arkansas has plenty of bright people who are willing to take some risks and form new companies around ideas that would not have been possible a handful of years ago.

“We are seeing these bright people accessing information regardless of where they live or what they are passionate about. As leaders in our communities, we need to make sure people have the tools to adapt to this change and be successful,” he said. “High-speed Internet access and adoption are critical pieces of the puzzle in today’s economy just as it was critical for previous community leaders to ensure their communities had access to roads, electricity and water. Leaders of today must add high-speed Internet to that mix if they want to continue being a vibrant community.

“We must take advantage of this opportunity that has been presented to us. We are in a competitive global economy and these opportunities don’t come along very often,” he noted. “We can still drastically improve the economic outlook of Arkansas, but that change must start now. That change starts with every Arkansan having access to affordable and reliable high-speed Internet in their homes.”

Connect is helping build toward that change by focusing on statewide projects that include technology training for adults and their children, putting computers in homes that currently do not have one, youth entrepreneurship training and giving Arkansas business owners access to any information resource they could need 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, via the Internet.

While Walls may be a passionate evangelist for high-speed Internet, he’s hardly alone.

“We need to eliminate all the barriers, including a lack of broadband, to attract more people,” Allan Nichols, executive director for Mainline Health Systems in Dermott, said. “People in the Delta do not deserve anything less than people living anywhere else. We can have all the expertise of anyone else in Little Rock or Atlanta – just with that one little cable. The people here are feeding and clothing the world. They are the working poor. The guy we need driving the tractor deserves the same healthcare as the CEO in West Little Rock. He can get the same care as the CEO if we had the technology.”

Incoming Speaker of the House Darrin Williams is on record stating that high-speed Internet will be one of his focuses during the Legislative Session in January 2013.

In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Williams said he believes that if we do not make high-speed Internet available to every Arkansan, then the state will continue to fall farther behind, something both Williams and Walls believe is a mistake Arkansas cannot afford to make.

Young father Kendon said he is a believer in the power of high-speed Internet. Through an act as simple as searching for the definition of the word “synonym,” Kendon said it was more than a teaching moment for him and his son.

“We figured it out,” Kendon said. “And in his eyes, I’m still the man.”

Connect Arkansas
200 River Market Ave., Suite 400
Little Rock, AR 72201