On Monday, a new bill introduced into the Arkansas State Legislature has the potential, if passed, to remove almost all existing barriers to municipal broadband in the state. SB 74 was introduced in the 93rd General Assembly, Regular Session 2021 by State Senators Breanne Davis and Ricky Hill and their counterparts Representatives Brian Evans and Deann Vaught.
The legislation would substantially amend the state’s Telecommunications Regulatory Reform Act of 2013, which in most scenarios bans government entities from building and owning networks and delivering services to residents in pursuit of promoting competition and bringing Internet access to unconnected parts of the state.
SB 74 keeps an existing ban on providing basic local exchange service in place (i.e. telephone), but otherwise allows municipalities to build, buy, and operate network infrastructure to deliver digital voice, broadband, data, and wireless telecommunications service to anyone in the state.
Slow Progress in Recent Years
Currently in Arkansas, municipalities are allowed to build or partner with private companies to build broadband infrastructure, but only if they acquire a grant or loan to do so and only do so in unserved areas. When policy veterans last commented on these particulars of the legislative landscape in 2019, they were worried that such geographic and financing restrictions would effectively preclude new networks, and they were right.
SB 74 eliminates these two restrictions, which represents a significant step forward. It also adds consolidated utility districts to the list of eligible entities, removes the requirement to file a public notice, and dramatically expands the emergency services clause to include healthcare services, education, and “other essential services.”
This is not the first time State Senator Davis and fellow lawmakers have attempted to fix the state’s broken regulatory environment. In early 2019, SB 150 sought to do many of the same things, but in the end was altered by amendments such that it only allowed government entities to deploy broadband in unserved areas and only if they received grant funding from a third party to do so.
Listen to Davis describe the state of broadband in Arkansas, and what the bill would do:
On Monday the bill was read for the first time and then referred to the Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee. If successful, this would reduce the number of states with significant barriers to municipal broadband to 18. If passed, far more communities could then take advantage of the Rural Broadband ID Grant Program we wrote about recently, positioning Arkansas to improve connectivity for thousands of residents in the near future.
Read the full bill here, or below.
Listen to Episode 356 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to hear Davis talk about her vision for better broadband in Arkansas.