Arkansas consultant says quantitative and qualitative data is important for broadband expansion

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Lou McAlister, CEO of the Little Rock-based Broadband Development Group, has been commissioned by the Arkansas Legislature to help create a blueprint for broadband Internet expansion across the state.

Already, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state pandemic relief and infrastructure investment funds have been allocated to fiber companies to initiate hundreds of broadband deployment projects, particularly in the ‘Rural Arkansas.

McAlister compiles a variety of data from the U.S. Census and current Internet providers to create a map that shows where broadband exists in certain communities. He estimates that about 90% of current census and broadband provider data is entered and accurate, while the remaining 10% may require physical surveying of areas in Arkansas.

By early April, when McAlister provides a research report to state lawmakers, there will be a number of county-specific meetings. McAlister says that by early 2022, about half of the state’s 75 counties will have had town halls to communicate their broadband needs and wants. By the time he’s finished, all 75 counties will have had forums as part of his efforts.

“There are two parts to the research. One is on quantitative data, you know, where do you live? How fast do you have? How much are you paying? Figures, targets, quantitative data. The other data, however, are qualitative. How frustrated are you? How angry are you? What happens to your children? What is happening to your business? What happens when you have fiber optic cable running through your yard or property, but you don’t have internet access? Why is that? ”Said McAlister.

“What these community meetings are really more of than anything else, we can submit a form, a survey, and people can provide us with quantitative data all day long. What we like to do is sit there and listen and interview and talk and get feedback from people and find out about things like the lady from the Dardanelle library, who is looking for a job and filing her unemployment benefits because she has lost her internet service at home because the $ 30 per month bill she thought she had was actually a $ 300 per month bill. And she makes $ 20,000 a year, she can’t afford it, ”he said. “You don’t get that by just looking at spreadsheets and databases and analyzing the data. You only get it when you’re face to face with someone and talking to them one-on-one. And that is mainly why we are in the communities.

McAlister believes the process of awarding broadband projects so far has been sufficient, especially given the state’s starting point. Going forward, he expects his report to help make future spending on projects much more efficient.

“The more we go, the more efficient we have to be and the tighter we have to be, the better off we have to be. And so I think that’s kind of where our relationship comes in. That’s where our work comes in. It’s not that what we’ve done in the past has been bad, it’s that what we are going to do in the future is going to be better, ”he said.

McAlister also warned that people in the Arkans need to be realistic about possible broadband penetration into rural parts of the state. He noted that when the rural telephone service was installed, a rate of 96% was considered “universal coverage”. This standard may also be necessary for broadband, as some extremely remote areas of Arkansas will be difficult to connect.

“It’s going to be hard to reach some people, no matter what we do, no matter how much money we have, it’s going to be hard to reach some people. So, will we be able to access all the solitary addresses in the state of Arkansas? It is a very high bar to cross, a very expensive bar to cross. I would say we are going to get the vast majority, ”he said.

As part of the research for the McAlister group, the Arkansans are encouraged to complete this free online survey.

You can watch her full interview in the video below.

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