It’s official. Senate Bill 74 became law last week when Governor Asa Hutchinson signed it, significantly reducing (but not completely removing) barriers to municipal broadband in the state of Arkansas, with both chambers voting unanimously in approval of the legislation. While the legislation doesn’t completely eliminate existing barriers to municipal broadband in the state, we consider it an historic moment and a significant step forward.
The central win in SB 74 is that it allows government entities “to acquire, construct, furnish, or equip facilities for the provision of voice services, data services, broadband services, video services, or wireless telecommunications services” so long as they “partner, contract, or otherwise affiliate with an entity that is experienced in the operation of the facilities,” as well as conduct due diligence, and provide ten-days’ notice and hold a public hearing.
Importantly, it also allows municipalities to issue general obligation bonds or impose special taxes to do so; prior, they could only do so after acquiring third-party funding through grants or loans. Finally, the legislation also expands the emergency provisions clause to include health and public safety operations.
SB 74 was first filed in early January, making its way through the Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development Committee before returning to the floor in the third week of the month. There it was amended once more to remove language expressly permitting municipalities from construction, owning, and operating broadband networks, leaving the law a bit unclear where local authority ends. We, along with the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, take this to mean that municipalities without electric utilities that try build communications facilities to do retail service could run into some legal challenges. On the whole however, SB 74 remains a significant win for municipalities to pursue projects.
Director of Community Broadband Networks Christopher Mitchell had this to say:
We are excited to see Arkansas encourage more investment in its communities by its communities. Between the electric cooperatives and the potential for community networks and partnerships, local businesses and residents will soon be seeing much better...