New coalition launched to help bridge Arkansas’ digital divide


Bentonville Nonprofit Heartland Striker organized a coalition of more than a dozen Arkansas organizations whose goal is to help expand internet access in the state.

According to a Thursday, July 14 press release, the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition includes the Arkansas Black Mayors Association, Arkansas Community Foundation, Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., Arkansas Farm Bureau, Arkansas Impact Philanthropy, Communities Unlimited, Diamond State Networks, Forward Arkansas, Holman Strategies, Runway Group, University of Arkansas-Department of Communication, University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, Research and Extension, Winrock International and Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.

Collectively, their goal is to help support local efforts and secure federal funding to expand access and ensure high-speed internet is more accessible and affordable across the state.

The group’s first effort is Accelerate Arkansas, an intensive 14-week broadband planning program for communities to leverage incoming federal infrastructure funds. Heartland Forward developed the program in partnership with the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society in Illinois.

Accelerate Arkansas builds on similar Heartland Forward programs established alongside the Benton Institute and local groups in Illinois and Ohio called Accelerate Illinois and Broadband Ohio.

The inaugural pilot cohort in Arkansas focuses on the eastern and southeast regions of the state – Cleveland County, Elaine, Hughes, Keo and West Memphis. The program starts on Thursday (July 14).

“Having access to high-speed, reliable internet service is crucial to working, learning and living in the 21st century, but too many families across Arkansas simply don’t have the connectivity they need,” said Angie Cooper. , program director of Heartland. Forward, said in a statement. “The Arkansas Connectivity Coalition shares a common goal of working to bridge the digital divide and ensure Arkansas builds a future that leverages high-speed internet to improve economic opportunity, education outcomes and health and effective service delivery.

“We are proud to launch Accelerate Arkansas as our first initiative, a program that has already proven successful in other parts of the heartland, including the states of Illinois and Ohio, by preparing communities to use incoming funds effectively and efficiently to connect people. ”

According to a press release, the program aims to prepare communities to establish and implement a vision of large-scale broadband connectivity.

The Benton Institute will advise communities and provide structured engagement to identify broadband goals, collect data, understand available financing options, and target capital investments to support implementation.

“Reliable high-speed internet is crucial to the economic vitality of our state,” Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said in a statement. “From schoolchildren connecting to lesson plans to businesses and industries connecting to get work done, connectivity is no longer a luxury. Over the past eight years, we have worked tirelessly to ensure Arkansans have the skills needed to compete – and win – in the global economy. The Arkansas Connectivity Coalition is the final piece of the puzzle to make this goal a reality.

Accelerate Arkansas will help local leadership teams develop broadband visions and implementation plans for their communities as new infrastructure funds are made available through state funding and the historic passage of federal infrastructure program.

The opportunity is made possible through a collaboration between the University of Arkansas, which will coordinate survey research and oversee administrative support, and a series of organizations across the state that will provide technical support to survey teams. cohort. These organizations include Communities Unlimited, Winrock International, the Association of Black Mayors of Arkansas, and the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Research and Extension. The Arkansas Community Foundation, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation, Diamond State Networks, Forward Arkansas, Heartland Forward, and Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation fund the Accelerate program.

Arkansas communities are set to receive significant funding for broadband infrastructure improvements, thanks to the recent passage of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure plan. The new coalition hopes the support for community planning offered through initiatives like Accelerate Arkansas will help level the playing field so more cities and counties — regardless of size or staff — can prepare. to apply for funds to help transform broadband in their communities.

Heartland Forward convened the Arkansas Connectivity Coalition through its Connect the Heartland initiative.


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