A Data-driven and Local Perspective of the Digital Divide in Arkansas

October 29, 2020
Malachi Nichols, Director of Evaluation and Data Quality 

Even before COVID-19 forced many Arkansas school districts to transition to hybrid or remote online learning, the need for increased broadband access across the state was critical – and the pandemic has only exacerbated this need. In this three-part series, ForwARd Arkansas’ Director of Evaluation and Data Quality Dr. Malachi Nichols digs deeper into broadband data from across the state, sharing perspectives and experiences of those on the ground in schools and communities dealing with the realities of these challenges daily.

We are more than two months into an academic school year, unlike any other due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The realities facing our communities and schools are pushing them to the brink of their capacity. However, it is also inspiring them to innovate in unprecedented ways and at scale.

As we talk to educators, parents, and champions of Arkansas education, we continue to hear the same questions – What is the “truth” of broadband in Arkansas? As we educate our youth in a system that needs internet, now more than ever, where does Arkansas stand?

At ForwARd Arkansas, we want to help identify those answers, as well as potential solutions to help inform and instruct our collective pathway forward.

The Digital Divide Index and What It Tells Us

Using the Digital Divide Index (DDI), created by the Center for Regional Development at Purdue University, we explore patterns among the digital divide, living slightly above the poverty line, and community demographics.

We created the map shown below presenting the DDI, percentage of the population identified as Caucasian and African American, and the rate of asset limited, income constrained, employed, (ALICE) households at the census tract level in Arkansas.

Upon studying the data, we find that the more ALICE households in an area, the higher the digital divide. Meaning the areas with more homes struggling to access the basic needs are also at greater risk of having no internet, slow downloading speeds, or lacking a computing device.

The racial lens further perpetuates this stark reality. Residing in an area with a greater concentration of African American residents is also linked to a higher digital divide. Conversely, areas with a larger proportion of Caucasian residents are less likely to experience these digital divides, independent of rurality.

These findings are not revolutionary and, in most cases, align with existing research and commentary. But, moving beyond the data, what does a digital divide look like in these communities?

In eastern Arkansas, communities in St. Francis County demonstrate some of Arkansas’s highest digital divide index levels. Mayor Lincoln Barnett of Hughes, Arkansas, is a long-time resident of the area and sees this digital divide firsthand. Despite having broadband services in the town of Hughes, a predominately African American community, access to and the quality of those services are limited. Within the town, neighbors, separated by only a few blocks have drastically different internet options and service reliability.

“I hear reports of residents’ internet being down for days at a time,” Mayor Barnett said. These service blackouts disrupt students’ learning in Hughes, who attend school virtually in West Memphis, about 20 minutes away.

As Mayor Barnett looks to support increased and improved broadband, he says the most prominent issues are “equity, access, and affordability.” The services available in Hughes tend to be to certain areas, and even then, the options are not always affordable. He is currently exploring various state-level grants to address this challenge. In the meantime, he’s working with local partners to produce solutions from within the community. For example, collaborating with a local doctor to offer telemedicine services for Hughes residents who can’t travel to Little Rock for appointments.

In De Queen, Arkansas, located in Sevier County, in the western part of the state, the digital divide is not as high as Hughes, but residents are experiencing similar issues. De Queen Alderman, Dr. Jason Lofton, says, “in town broadband is decent but expensive, and outside of town broadband is poor and unreliable.”

Some areas in Sevier County have upwards of 35 percent of households who constitute as ALICE households. Dr. Lofton pays around $250 a month for home internet service, and prices for 1 GB of fiber in the area cost as much as $1,500 a month. These are prices that are high anywhere, but out of reach for income-constrained families.

Dr. Lofton and his colleagues on the De Queen City Council recognize the need for accessible broadband for students and residents. They are exploring the possibility of providing free internet downtown and streaming internet in their parks.

Even though Hughes and De Queen differ, their digital lived experiences point in the same direction. The digital divide is a disruptive force plaguing Arkansans across the state. As we strive to more deeply understand Arkansas’s broadband reality and work to implement effective state-wide strategies to improve it, good data will guide us. In parallel, we must encourage and support local efforts that cultivate rapid innovation to reduce the digital divide in their areas.

We are eager to learn more about how schools and communities are working to address the digital divide for the benefit of students, teachers and families. Share your stories with us via email at mnichols@forwardarkansas.org.