*Update: After amending the bill significantly, SB 150 passed through the Arkansas Senate to the House. We were initially excited because the original version of the bill reinstated local authority to develop publicly owned broadband networks. The amendment adopted in Committee, however, changed the bill to only allow communities that apply for and receive grants and loans to invest in community networks and only to specific areas and at the speeds defined in those grants and loans. We still consider it a step in the right direction, but the move forward is miniscule. Read the amended bill here.*
This session, a new force in the Arkansas State Legislature — the Republican Women’s Legislative Caucus — has decided that they’ll take on the issue of poor connectivity. As part of their “Dream Big” initiative, they’ve introduced SB 150, a bill to restore local telecommunications authority.
"Dreaming Big" Means Bigger Broadband
The bill was introduced on January 23rd along with a suite of four other bills aimed at a variety of issues, including juvenile justice and education. Senator Breanne Davis of Russellville is the lead sponsor of SB 150, which would repeal restrictions preventing communities from developing broadband networks. Current law has an exception for communities that have a municipal electric utility but if SB 150 is adopted, any government entity will be able to offer high-quality connectivity.
Legislators are focusing on opportunities for local communities to partner with private sector ISPs as a way to solve some of the poorest access to broadband in the country. They're also emphasizing that, if no partner wants to work with a government entity, this bill will allow a city, town, or county to invest on their own.
In a recent conversation with Talk Business & Politics, Davis described the impetus and goal of the bill:
“About 40% of Arkansans don’t have access to broadband as defined by the FCC, so we decided to change that,” she said. “Our bill simply lifts the ban on cities and counties being able to either partner in a public-private partnership or go out on their own when no one will partner with them and apply for some of these grants that are available through the federal government.”
Sailing Through the Senate?
SB 150 unanimously passed its first committee stop on February 7th in the Insurance and Commerce Committee. It was amended from its original language to allow it to take effect immediately so local communities to can apply for federal USDA funding to be made available in Arkansas for broadband infrastructure. The committee sent the bill back to the Senate for full consideration.
Correcting A Bad Situation
Last fall, Legal Aid of Arkansas determined that high numbers of people depending on Medicaid had lost the benefit due to their inability to adhere to a new state reporting requirement. Arkansans on Medicaid who were required to work or volunteer had to report their hours but the only way to do so was online. In a state where Internet access is hard to come by, thousands lost their healthcare.
If Arkansas insists on using an online-only reporting method, Internet access in Arkansas needs to be widely available. SB 150 can allow local communities to fill in the gaps created in places where large ISPs aren’t interested in developing broadband networks.
Share Your Thoughts
If you live in Arkansas and suffer from poor Internet access or have no access to FCC defined broadband speeds of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, contact your Senator and your Representative and let them know you support this bill.
Thanks to podcast listener Kevin Butler for bringing SB 150 to our attention!
Image of the Arkansas Capitol Building by Daniel Schwen [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons