To meet his goal of deploying high-speed internet statewide by 2022, Gov. Asa Hutchinson this week named Nathan Smith as broadband manager for the Arkansas State Broadband Office.
Smith, who began his new role Wednesday, was previously the economic policy director for the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. Smith told StateScoop that he had in his previous role already been doing some work on broadband development, but that in his new position he will split his time between the governor’s broadband expansion project and broader economic analysis work through his other role as the director of research for the Arkansas Department of Commerce.
Smith’s new dual-role puts a face behind the governor’s commitment to providing internet access to every community with a population greater than 500 people, but it’s also the result of Hutchinson’s restructuring of the state government, which recently consolidated 42 executive agencies into 15.
A major piece of his broadband work, Smith said, will involve assisting municipalities in applying for state and federal grants for broadband expansion. The state is also considering changing right-of-way rules and other regulations to spur private investment.
A 79-page plan behind Hutchinson’s broadband goal, which was released in May with Smith’s help, outlines a broad range of challenges facing the state, including issues with mapping inaccuracies, the difficulties in connecting a highly rural population (41 percent of Arkansas residents live in rural areas) and broader concerns about the total size of the problem.
According to BroadbandNow.com, a website that ranks internet service providers, Arkansas is ranked last for wired broadband connectivity in the United States, with just 75 percent coverage. It estimates 32 percent of the state’s residents are underserved, and even its estimation that 100 percent of the state’s residents at least have access to mobile broadband service is second-guessed in the governor’s report.
In addition to coordinating with local governments, Smith said his office also has “a bunch” of other ideas of how to improve broadband access, which could be announced in the coming months.
Smith’s work experience before joining Arkansas was diverse, but continually circled his interest in economics. He spent four months with the state of Maine’s Department of Labor as a statistical program supervisor. He spent four years as an assistant professor at Fresno Pacific University in California where he taught various economics courses. He studied the impact of fiscal policy on savings rates at the Cato Institute.
At Harvard Kennedy School he earned a masters of public administration and international development. At George Mason University, he earned a Ph.D. in economics, writing his dissertation on the economic models surrounding technological change.
Though much of that research was abstract, he said, some of it relates directly to the work that states are doing to bring broadband internet to more people. Delivering broadband to smaller rural communities, for instance, has an infamous scaling problem.
“There can be technologies, people love it, it’s great, but you need a critical mass of demand before you can actually implement that technology,” Smith said. “In small towns, the economics of it can be a little bit more challenging.”
But internet is crucial, he said, pointing to both the heightened expectations the public has for access to information technologies and the opportunities they present in work, medicine, education and entertainment that are lost without a broadband connection.
“If you’re left behind, there’s really a lot you miss out on,” he said. “It has become more of a necessity than a luxury.”