CityLab highlights a rare piece of good news from this year’s legislative session — the bill from Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) to allow local governments to build broadband infrastructure, overturning a previous legislative ban that gave phone and TV companies a monopoly on the broadband business. It was passed unanimously in both houses and signed into law by the governor in February.
The new law is limited in scope — due to an amendment tacked on shortly before it was approved in committee, perhaps under the influence of the telecom lobby, government entities wishing to build broadband networks and provide broadband services can only do so if the funding comes from an outside grant or loan. Still, it’s a start, opening up potential options for government entities — including cities, towns, school districts, and state agencies — to develop broadband access in underserved areas, either on their own or in partnership with private companies. The state’s current broadband access is among the worst in the nation, exacerbated by the ALEC-influenced ban on municipal broadband that was previously in place.
Under the weight of constituent complaints about lousy internet—and after years of waiting for subsidies to goad telecom giants into expanding the infrastructure—the state legislature in February passed a bill to repeal its ban.
That this is happening at all is significant. That it’s happening in a deep-red state is perhaps monumental.
Arkansas outlawed municipal broadband in 2011 as a wave of other states passed similar laws. It was, in part, a factor of the Tea Party movement, which ushered small-government Republicans into state capitols. By 2018, 21 states had some law banning or restricting municipal broadband; many were cut-and-paste “model legislation” from the American Legislative and Exchange Council, backed by telecom giants. They sought to kill municipal broadband under the belief that “such services should not be offered by government in competition with private-sector providers.”
Davis told CityLab: “We were one of the five states that had the most restrictive laws [on municipal broadband] in the nation, and almost last in broadband.”
CityLab cites BroadbandNow, which found that Arkansas is currently the least connected state in the nation:
Only 75 percent of Arkansas homes have access to broadband. Even that statistic is overselling it, says BroadbandNow’s technical product manager Jameson Zimmer. Some of that data was compiled from reports from service providers, who might exaggerate their capacity, and rural lines classified as broadband are often sluggish by city standards. Despite billions in federal subsidies to get them up to speed, the cost to extend broadband lines (which can be thousands per house) has left swaths of the U.S. with 1990s-grade internet.
As for the limitations on governmental entities hoping to develop broadband that the law preserves:
Still, the new law won’t give towns and cities a full license to set up their own networks. A last-minute amendment stipulated they need a grant or loan from a second party. Davis hopes the changes will allow farming towns to access some of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $600 million fund to build broadband networks in rural areas.