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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, who said his top priority is closing the digital divide in rural America, was close to ground zero of that divide in Arkansas on Friday.

Pai met for about an hour in Little Rock with state telecommunications executives and state and local officials to discuss his agency's efforts to extend high-speed Internet access to rural areas and then met more briefly with reporters to discuss the issue.

In Arkansas, more than 16 percent of the population has no access to broadband, which is almost four times the nationwide average of 4.54 percent, according to agency data.

While 97 percent of Americans in urban areas have access to broadband, that percentage falls to 65 percent for rural Americans, including those who reside in Arkansas. Mississippi, at 61 percent, has the lowest broadband access of any state in the nation, according to a report last year by the Center for Data Innovation.

"We really had an energizing meeting with a variety of companies and state and local agencies about rural broadband," Pai told reporters. "To me, at least, I think there is a universal passion around this country, around this issue because ... broadband is increasingly important in American life for telemedicine, or educating kids or making sure we get the most productive use out of our farmland. Broadband is vital to those things."

The FCC is in the midst of rolling out an initiative that it and others hope will help bridge that gap. The Connect America Fund II program will make available $1.98 billion to bidders beginning in July to bring high-quality broadband services to rural areas.

"Time is not on the side of a lot of these small towns in Arkansas, Kansas and the rest of the Midwest," said Pai, a Harvard-educated son of Indian immigrants who grew up in rural Kansas. "We want to make sure we do what we can as soon as we can as responsible as we can to make sure every American, regardless of where he or she might live, has the digital opportunity."

Arkansas has had some success. Last year, the state became one of a handful to boast universal high-speed broadband connectivity to all of its public schools.

Tony Thomas, president and chief executive officer of Windstream, was among those who met with Pai. Windstream is a leading provider of broadband, entertainment and security services for consumers and small and medium-sized businesses primarily in rural areas in 18 states.

The company will be participating in the Connect America Fund II program, he said.

"Anytime the FCC can find monies to enable broadband deployment to those that don't have broadband in some of the most rural areas of our country, to bring them to the digital economy, is a very good investment," Thomas said. "The carrier who is best positioned to deploy it in these areas where there is no broadband gets the opportunity to do that. I know in that situation ... Windstream will be successful."

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and his staff helped organize Friday's meeting, which is part of a series of visits to rural states Pai has been making. He was in Tennessee last week.

"The chairman is from rural America ... so he understands the way we live in Arkansas, so his support for the universal service fund and for providing those options for high-speed, affordable, quality broadband access all across our state has been vital," Cotton said.


Autor(en)/Author(s): Noel Oman

Quelle/Source: Arkansas Online, 07.04.2018

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