Arkansas Takes a Huge Step Forward in Removing Barriers to Municipal Broadband

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 Internet access.

Like a Rolling Stone

Watching momentum build in the state over the last several years has been exciting. The current effort to remove state preemption began in January 2019 when the Republican Women’s Legislative Caucus introduced SB 150, a  sweeping bill that, if passed unaltered, would have reinstated the authority of municipalities to build and operate publicly owned broadband networks. 

Before it became law, however, SB 150 was significantly amended in the House to only allow communities that find third-party funding to build networks, and only then in the underserved and unserved areas specified by the terms of those grants or loans. It was a small step forward. 

The recent progress made by cities like Clarksville and Conway demonstrate the unquestionable benefits of municipal broadband. The state currently sits among those least connected by basic wireline broadband in the nation, with a full 20% (more than 200,000 people) of the state lacking any option whatsoever.

We wrote about the promise SB 74 offered when it was introduced two weeks ago, and so did local media, unearthing stories of businesses struggling with a lack of connectivity even in cities as big as Cabot (pop. 26,000). Cabot Mayor Ken Kincaide supported the bill in a public hearing, saying “We’re not asking for money. We’re asking for the handcuffs to be removed.”

Depending on what happens, however, that money might be more easily gotten. A new $2 million program will disburse 30 separate $75,000 grants to towns and cities looking to perform feasibility studies, which will help open more doors for funding down the road.

Read SB 74 here or below.