Elizabeth Bowles will be on a mission April 21 when she flies to Washington, D.C., as a newly minted member of the federal Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. She’s demanding technological equality for rural people.
The president and board chairman of Aristotle Inc. in Little Rock, Bowles was chosen Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission to join the panel, whose goal is to increase high-speed internet access nationwide and close the digital divide between urban and rural America.
“Rural broadband is critical in general and especially in Arkansas, which has a high rural population,” Bowles told Arkansas Business on Friday. “There are many unserved and underserved people in our state, and broadband is a huge economic driver.
We need to get broadband into the hands of those who can use it to benefit these rural communities.”
The assignment falls easily into Bowles’ wheelhouse. Her father, W. Dixon Bowles, was a co-founder of Aristotle, the digital media agency and wireless broadband internet service provider, and Elizabeth Bowles focused on technology as a young litigator in Washington before joining Aristotle as general counsel in 2000. Later, she became president and took her father’s seat as chairman after his death in 2010.
“I have a particular passion for broadband and the internet, and Aristotle is one of the few companies to be both a full-service digital agency and an internet service provider,” Bowles said. “It’s important to me that rural areas not get shortchanged. Most of Arkansas is rural, farming, and that’s a lot of what makes us who we are.”
Bowles, who has a two-year appointment to the committee, said that while most small towns and farms in the state have cellular access, and thus mobile broadband, they face huge business disadvantages by lacking fixed broadband service. “Mobile broadband serves a function, but the broadband uses available in urban areas — streaming, things to run a business — are often unavailable,” she said. “Businesses are reluctant to go into an area if it has only mobile broadband.” She called affordable fixed broadband access not a luxury, but a necessity.
And fixed broadband isn’t incidental to Aristotle’s success, though business considerations weren’t her priority in joining the committee, she said. Aristotle has been installing wireless fixed broadband systems east of Little Rock, and is planning to plunge deeper into the Delta. “It’s often hard to make the economics work for fiber deployment in less-populated areas,” Bowles said. “Every technology has strengths and weaknesses, and rural America’s broadband solution can’t rely on a single technology. We have to have a blended solution.”
However, the wireless fixed broadband that Aristotle offers is far cheaper, “about one-tenth the cost of fiber, and much faster to deploy,” Bowles said. “Unlike fiber or even mobile, we need only about 40 customers to make a business case to put in broadband.”
And that’s precisely what Aristotle has been doing in towns like Scott, England and Keo, all in Lonoke County, with a “deployment plan to keep moving east,” Bowles said, offering Humnoke, which has a population of about 300, as an example. “It has mobile broadband, but like other small towns it’s hard to make an economic case there for fiber deployment. The whole debate over fiber vs. DLS or cable broadband is not an ‘or,’ but an ‘and.’ The hybrid solution is open to all available technology as long as it provides the most cost-effective broadband as possible.”
Aristotle offers fixed wireless broadband, an “over-the-air replacement for physical wire.” Instead of coming through a coaxial cable or a fiber line into homes, broadband signals travel from an antenna array, and hundreds of customers within the radius of the antenna can receive it through home-based antennas.
That’s known as a point-to-multipoint system. Another process, point-to-point, sends a dedicated broadband signal from a single tower to a single user, offering much higher bandwidths. The top stories of the day, right to your inbox
Aristotle’s business plan calls for the company to triple both its network size and customer base within 36 months, and Bowles called that an achievable goal. “It’s also worth noting that we do not take subsidies. We’re paying for these systems ourselves.”
Bowles says she is a big believer in competition, and she has often finished first. She was first in her graduating class at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, then first in her class at Vanderbilt Law School. Arkansas bar exam? First in that too — “I was an egghead,” she jokes.
A competitive environment can foster success, she says. “In places where you see a 65 percent to 75 percent adoption rate in broadband, those places have multiple providers. There’s a reason that you see a Wendy’s next to a McDonald’s. Everybody makes more money if there’s competition.”
Other internet providers do not see it that way, she concedes, pointing to telecom survivors who are protective of the subsidies they often reap in installing broadband. That protective mindset is hampering access, she argues.
“In Arkansas, there have been 37 broadband bills introduced in the legislature, and every one has failed,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I am happy to be on the committee, because it is going to look at what state laws should be to promote access to broadband.”
Bowles drew support in her bid to join the committee from Sen. Tom Cotton and from U.S. Reps. French Hill, R-Little Rock, and Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro.
She is one of 29 members, including representatives from across the technology industry, government and academia.
Aristotle, she said, is the only fixed wireless provider represented. “I think they did a good job with the 29 people in getting a good cross-section of stakeholders,” Bowles said. “I’m expecting a full discussion of real issues and how to fix them.”