Internet In Northwest Arkansas Feeling Stress


Ed Drilling, the president of AT&T Arkansas, says “everybody is wanting more and more bandwidth.”
Ed Drilling, the president of AT&T Arkansas, says “everybody is wanting more and more bandwidth.” (Jason Burt)
(Beth Hall)

No one is complaining about the population and economic growth in northwest Arkansas, but all that growth is putting strains on the area’s infrastructure.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the daily commute on Interstate 49, which is being widened to six lanes to handle the increased traffic. But the road system isn’t the only infrastructure in the region; the internet infrastructure is also feeling the stress.

Internet service providers are doing what they can to keep up with the area’s growing demands. The answer is neither cheap nor easy, just as widening the interstate is a costly, time-consuming endeavor.

AT&T Arkansas, Cox Communications and Ozarks Electric Cooperative have all recently announced plans to increase the availability and speed of internet connections. AT&T said it had invested more than $1 billion in the past six years in the state.

“It is a huge area of growth; everybody is wanting more and more bandwidth, both on wired line as well as wireless,” said Ed Drilling, the president of AT&T Arkansas. Data over the wireless network “just in the last six years has grown 150,000 percent. Keeping up with that traffic growth would be substantial. Obviously, it is a challenge, and we continue to invest in wired lines and wireless to keep up with demand.”

Improving internet connections is not as simple as flipping a switch. The faster connections require fiber lines, which have to be installed, and more users mean more relay points and cell towers.

“We think of a wireless network as wireless, but it’s only the last few hundred feet that is wireless,” Drilling said. “Fiber is the key to it.”

Business Needs

Better internet connection is an important piece for northwest Arkansas, not just for the gamers who want to watch Netflix while chasing cartoon characters, but for businesses that have soaring data requirements. Tom Allen, executive vice president of developer Hunt Ventures LLC, said providing connection speeds of 1 gigabyte per second at the newly built Hunt Tower was a prerequisite of potential tenants.

“They’re transmitting so much data to their home offices and I guess probably to Wal-Mart,” Allen said. “They’re very concerned about having fiber and speed and capacity. It seems that all the requests we get, that is one of their requirements, whether it is available or not. We knew the tenants coming in would want that so we had already planned that.”

Michael Paladino, the co-founder of RevUnit of Bentonville, said his digital marketing company employs 18 and uses a 100-megabyte connection — roughly one-tenth of a gigabyte. Internet connection speeds are important not just to his business, Paladino said, but to the people he wants to hire to work in northwest Arkansas.

“To be the technological hub we want to be in northwest Arkansas, the internet has to be there,” Paladino said. “The talent pool I’m hiring is absolutely looking for those types of things. It makes northwest Arkansas more attractive.”

Mike Malone, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said quality internet is an absolute must for business growth. Malone said the council is helping the regional planning commission with a survey to determine the area’s infrastructure needs: highways, airports and, increasingly, internet.

“It has quickly become a key piece both for recruiting business and also for attracting and retaining talent,” Malone said. “We’ve seen other metro areas that have used high-speed internet for business attraction and to grow technology-related businesses. It is a must-have when you’re recruiting certain types of business.

“We’re lucky in this region with several businesses that are really leaning forward to make sure that infrastructure is in place. It’s different business partners trying to solve the need. We’re thrilled they are all leaning forward.”

Connecting Rural Arkansas

Cox Communications has been offering 1-gigabyte connections for businesses for a decade, said spokeswoman Whitney Yoder. Cox recently provided 1 gig of connection speed at two residential sites in northwest Arkansas: the Trails of Bentonville apartment complex and Gramercy Park subdivision in Bentonville.

The company works to figure out “critical mass growth areas” where infrastructure improvements are needed, Yoder said. “We’re constantly making improvement. There is definitely a growing demand for faster and faster speeds. It’s something that we do hear a lot from our customers. We’re building our way, and we made a commitment to get a gig to all of our customers.”

Yoder said Cox has invested $15 billion nationwide in improving its fiber network. Ozarks Electric recently announced its subsidiary, OzarksGo, would begin work on offering service to its customers in west Fayetteville, Farmington and parts of Springdale and Tontitown that would provide up to 1 gigabyte of connection speed to residential users.

AT&T announced in May it would begin a wired broadband service for 50,000 rural customers. The service would connect a cell tower with a home antenna to turn a rural home into a wireless network.

The program is made possible by a $21 million grant from the federal government’s Connect America. BroadbandNow ranked Arkansas 48th nationally in connection with an average speed of 27.1 megabytes per second and said 26 percent of the population was underserved.

Much of Arkansas is rural with population densities in Pulaski County and northwest Arkansas. People don’t have to live way out in the hills to lack quality internet; Paladino said one of his employees lives just outside Bentonville but also outside the reach of internet service providers.

“There are a lot of fixed costs in taking fiber to a remote area,” said Drilling, who acknowledged that federal grants made AT&T’s expansion into rural Arkansas an easier financial decision. “In some areas of Arkansas, the homes are so dispersed you’re talking one home every 100 acres. You can’t justify the costs — we can’t — to take fiber all the way to a location. Your cost to take fiber all the way to a home could be $10,000 to $15,000 per living unit.”

Like OzarksGo, Cox is planning to improve its residential offerings, Yoder said, so users can get faster speeds without paying more than they currently are, reflecting Cox’s commitment to provide its customers with what they want and expect.

Drilling said customers aren’t really interested in how involved it is to lay fiber cable to improve internet; they just want the service when they want it, seamlessly.

“It’s like oxygen; people want it and a lot of it,” Drilling said. “They want their oxygen. If it’s not there, then there’s a problem. That’s what we’re about: giving them as much as they want wherever they are.”