With the days of dial-up internet service an ancient memory in today’s technology-based world, broadband internet access sets the standard.
But when you live in a state that ranks 48th in the United States in broadband access and in a part of that state with only 0.1 percent of residents with the Federal Communications Commission’s 2.5 megabyte minimum for broadband, you run the risk of disappearing all together in rear-view mirrors along the information super highway.
That is one of the many challenges facing Jefferson County residents, but it isn’t one being completely overlooked.
According to the online broadband advocacy website broadbandnow.com, and a recent State of the Internet report by internet content delivery network Akamai Technologies, Arkansas ranks 48 out of 50 states in internet speeds and access. According to broadbandnow.com, the number of Jefferson County residents with broadband internet access is 0.1 percent, with the average speed available for Pine Bluff residents falling short at 22.8 megabytes per second.
Pine Bluff Cable’s area manager Marc Billingsley said his company is trying to change that. The 16 megabit-per-second speed listed on broadbandnow.com is the minimum speed the company offers, but residents and businesses can buy packages of up to 50 mbps currently and 100 mbps in the near future.
“We offer up to 50 megs, which I think is a good speed,” Billingsley said. “It’s very competitive with any other operator. We are in the middle of a project that will double that. We don’t have a launch date for that, but we are well into preparation. Soon there will be 100 megs available here in Pine Bluff — which is true broadband speed.”
Pine Bluff Cable’s main residential ISP competitor in Pine Bluff is AT&T’s U-verse. According to broadbandnow.com, AT&T’s broadband range offered is 45 mbps down to 1.5 mbps. Billingsley said how residents typically use the internet determines what type of package they purchase.
“Some people just do Facebook and email, but gamers and people who use Netflix and other things will get the higher packages,” Billingsley said.
Billingsley said his company also is taking steps to reduce the chances of future outages by investing in a second fiber optic line — called redundancy — to back up their signal. Billingsley said past outages were caused by breakdowns in the network feed; but by investing in a second line, a backup feed will always be available.
Of course, businesses and government agencies also rely heavily on quality internet service where interruptions and heavy usage can cause problems. The Pine Bluff School District recently announced a $200,000 upgrade to its network systems after online testing overloaded its systems.
“You have what we call bottlenecks in the network,” said PBSD Director of Technology Rodney Riles. “You may have a larger number of computers than you have at the other end of the building, and our school district is one of the oldest ones in the state. We have smaller cables. We are trying to replace them with fiber optic cables, so it won’t be keep backing up and get where we need it to be.”
Riles said the district currently uses a patchwork system totalling 1.5 gigabytes but the new system with White River Services and Solutions will give the district uploading and downloading speeds of two gigabytes.
“It affect[ed] the schools greatly in the past, but our school is slated to get two gigs from the state — coming in July,” Riles said. “They have adjusted and upgraded their system at this point so that we won’t have the slowest internet speeds in Arkansas. This is all down the road and we are kind of waiting our turn to get on the new system.
“Right now I have several internet providers to get me to that 1.5. I have another provider giving me 250 [mbps]. Then I have another one giving me 200 [mbps], and then I’m getting 50 from the state. Overall it’s 2.5 [gbps] but that’s in round figures. Once the state gives me my pipeline, we’ll have two gigs up and two gigs down. That’s getting us there.”
Riles said the system upgrade will allow students and teachers to use online multimedia teaching tools such as YouTube and smart boards. Riles said current access to such technology is “slow, sluggish and unusable.”
Jefferson County Justice of the Peace Lloyd Franklin II said he hopes local leaders will continue to make the necessary investments on behalf of residents, businesses and government agencies alike. Franklin said Pine Bluff might consider trying to copy Chattanooga, Tennessee, in providing a municipal internet service.
“Those are definitely things that we should look at if we can get the funding for it,” Franklin said. “I think the problem is with Pine Bluff that you have certain people who have a monopoly on so many things here. They frown upon things that may give opportunity to other entities.
“When you’re talking about giving free wifi to a poverty-stricken area, you would be at odds with Pine Bluff Cable or AT&T and people who provide those services.”
Franklin suggested new technologies such as online text books could also both save money and enhance student education.
“There are tons of things we can look at like Chromebooks,” Franklin said. “It costs a fraction of the costs and it provides the same thing as a Microsoft computer. Google is really starting to push hard towards tailoring those to the classrooms.”