Legislative Intent in Arkansas: A Talk With Senator Davis - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 356

It’s mid-May and while some states’ legislatures are still in session, other’s have already debated new legislation, voted, and adopted new laws. This week, we talk with one Senator from Arkansas who, along with her colleagues, are interested in bringing better broadband to rural areas of her state, Breanne Davis.

During the 2019 session, she introduced SB 150, which was ultimately adopted. The bill makes slight changes in Arkansas law that prevent local communities from developing infrastructure to be used for broadband. She and Christopher discuss why she and her colleagues decided it was time to ask lawmakers for the change after years of depending on large ISPs who weren’t living up to promises to expand broadband in rural areas.

Christopher and Senator Davis discuss some of the details of the bill and address the amendments that changed a broad piece of legislation to a targeted law that allows local communities to apply for federal grant funding. She explains some of the reasons for the amendments and how those changes fit into the vision she and her colleagues in the legislature have for the future of Arkansas.

Read more about SB 150.

This show is 21 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Breanne Davis: In the year 2019, we shouldn't have to choose between where we live and taking a job that requires us to send email.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 356 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week, state Senator Breanne Davis joins us to discuss changes in the law in her home state of Arkansas. Earlier this year we reported about a bill that she and several other women lawmakers introduced to lift state restrictions on municipal broadband. After a couple of amendments, the bill passed, and while it doesn't remove all barriers in Arkansas, it is a small step toward local authority for better connectivity. In this interview, Senator Davis describes how she and the other authors of the bill chose broadband as an issue that needed their attention. She discusses how they refined the bill to allow local communities to access federal grant funding. Lawmakers in the state of Arkansas have run out of patience waiting for large ISPs to make good on the promise to deliver rural broadband after taking so many subsidies over the years. You can read more about the specifics of Senate Bill 150 at muninetworks.org to discover how and why state lawmakers decided to make the change. Now let's hear from Breanne Davis, state senator from Arkansas.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with Senator Breanne Davis from Arkansas about a very interesting bill that made its way through that that Senator Davis sponsored, dealing with municipal broadband questions. So welcome to the show, Senator.

Breanne Davis: Hi. Thank you. I'm happy to be on.

Christopher Mitchell: I wonder if you'd maybe just start by giving us a sense of, what is broadband like in the area you represent and even more largely across Arkansas, for our listeners to get a sense of that.

Breanne Davis: Well, a lot of my district — I represent about 90,000 people and my district is pretty rural, so there's plenty of places that don't have access to broadband, and it's similar throughout the state. We have over 40 percent of Arkansans that don't have access to broadband as defined by the FCC, and actually 25 percent of Arkansans that don't have access to broadband at all. So we're really lagging, and it was an important issue for us to take up this session.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I was actually surprised. I know that across the nation there's some places where even a county library may not have access, and that seems like something that occurs occasionally in Arkansas. I don't think a lot of people have a sense of that.

Breanne Davis: Yeah, I think it's interesting because there's a few things we've done really well in Arkansas and you know, one of them is providing broadband to all of our public schools, K-12. So 99 percent of our public schools have high speed broadband, and that was an initiative that our governor took on a little over four years ago. And we actually lead the nation in that. Then we have a coding initiative that our governor also took on to put computer coding into classrooms K-12, and we're leading the nation in that. Yet we're lagging so far behind. I believe we're last or next to last in access to broadband throughout the rest of the state.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and as our listeners will be familiar with, it's varying tremendously within the state. We've done interviews with Randy Klindt, who I believe is at Northern Ozarks Electric Cooperative [correction: Randy Klindt works at Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Missouri] where — I could be mangling some things here, but OzarksGo, where you may be in a rural area and you could have gigabit access and like you're saying, you could be pretty close to there and maybe not even have anything above dial-up.

Breanne Davis: That's exactly right. You know, and it's not just true for our rural areas, but it's true for places within Little Rock, our state's capital, or right outside of a city. You can have access to broadband and hit a spot and not have it at all, and so it's not just true for our rural areas, but all kinds of places across the state. It's actually very interesting.

Christopher Mitchell: And Arkansas is one of the states — we count about 20 in our analysis that have limitations on the ability of local governments to provide service. In Arkansas, basically, cities that have municipal electric utilities have, I think, more broad authority and cities that did not have electric utilities really didn't have any authority. And so, you authored a bill to change that, and I'm curious if you can describe that to us — just your vision.

Breanne Davis: To be honest, I worked with and 21 other women. We actually this session had all of our Republican women legislators come together and just formed a caucus, and we called it Dream BIG, which was Bold Initiatives for the Good of Arkansas. And we tried to find issues that weren't really Republican or Democrat issues, but they were Arkansas issues and problems that we needed to solve and solve quickly. And so, we started talking about access to broadband and realized that Arkansas had on of the fifth strictest laws in the nation in regards to, like you mentioned, cities, municipalities, and counties being able to partner and to bring broadband to their area. And so, as we started to dig deeper, we found that since 2015, there are three major companies in Arkansas that have received $223 million in federal grant money to bring broadband to several areas in Arkansas, but we weren't seeing any closing of the gap in service provided to Arkansans. And so, we just decided, you know what, if they're not going to help solve the problem, then we're going to take matters in our own hands and we're going to lift the restriction and let municipalities if they want to either partner with an Internet service provider or go in on their own and apply for a lot of this federal grant money that's available right now to bring broadband these areas. We started realizing how big the problem was and that it had not been solved and wanted to try to find a way to be aggressive in helping solve it.

Christopher Mitchell: I like the way you put that, that this is in Arkansas issue, not a left or a right issue because I was heartened when the federal government created the ReConnect act, which was created by a Republican Congress and signed by Donald Trump, who's the republican president of the United States, obviously, and it expressly made grants available to cities, whether they wanted to partner or do it themselves. But there is a history, I think of at the local level, this is totally nonpartisan, at the state level, depending on the state, it can get partisan, and inside DC, it actually is quite partisan. And so, was there any resistance, I mean, among your Republican colleagues saying, you know, actually we're uncomfortable with giving cities this larger authority?

Breanne Davis: So we did have a little bit of pushback and questions like that from a few members here and there just saying, you know, what does government even do well so do we really want to allow government into another space? By and large, Republicans throughout the legislature were really on board with it, and I think the best way to be able to explain that shift is really because we've given private companies the opportunity for years now to solve the problem and they haven't done so. And so, I think we just realized, like, we sat back, we let these companies have the opportunity to solve this for us, and we just have to do something different. And so, yeah, we had that conversation, but we actually, to be honest, we didn't have a single person vote against this bill, Republican or Democrat. It just shows you how bipartisan it was and how frustrated all of us were with what was being done here in Arkansas. So it worked out well.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I want to talk a little bit about some of the motivations that have been ascribed. There's two modes of thought I've seen in newspaper articles and in other forms of media covering this, and I want to get your reaction as I sort of describe them. One is that a lot of the people you were working with were motivated because of a frustration around the fact that Arkansas was the first to require a lot of Medicaid reporting online and people were struggling to do that in some areas because of a lack of access. And then there was another article that claimed — really I don't know if I should say "it claimed," but it used as motivation — it was talking about Netflix and being able to stream video as being a frustration that people didn't have access to that as much. And so, we've seen quite a different number of claims. That's why I wanted to talk to you to get a sense of what sort of things were you talking about along those lines.

Breanne Davis: That's funny. I didn't either of those comments directly as we were working through — I mean, I did hear mention of the Medicaid work requirement and having to sign up and do some stuff online, but what we really heard were people just saying, you know, I had to help my child turn in their college application or we had to apply for the FAFSA online, and we had to go down the road, sit down at the end of my gravel road to get Wi-Fi. Or I tried to, you know, pull up an email for work and it took a week for that email to download, and you know, I have to go into town and sit at the local McDonald's and pull up my work email there. And so I felt like there is — in Arkansas anyways, we have so many rural communities, and agriculture, you know, is what we're known for here in Arkansas and our top industry. And we have our small communities that are, I feel like, begging for help from our state and just saying, you know, our community is slowly dying off, our young people are moving off to find jobs and opportunity, and we want to still have a thriving small community. And to me, I think that in the year 2019 we shouldn't have to choose between where we live and taking a job that requires us to send email. And so, I think that what we heard back from Arkansans were, like, very practical things. Of course, Netflix is a way of life for so many of us. It's what we, you know, what we do at night, find a good show, and so I think that of course probably plays into some of the frustrations. You can't even do basic things like watch a show on Netflix. But what we understand is broadband is a commodity, and it's something just like water that we feel like we should have when we go into our home, you know. And like I said, it wasn't just about rural Arkansas. It was about even in the cities too.

Christopher Mitchell: I have to — I always chafe when I hear people sort of almost dismissively using Netflix as an issue in these discussions because whether or not your home has Netflix has thousands of dollars of implication in real estate values. I mean it's a good policy actually for a lot of things regarding the health of a community.

Breanne Davis: I think you're right.

Christopher Mitchell: And so, one of the comments you made was someone had said, you know, "What does government do well?" and I'm someone who alternates between raging at poorly designed government programs and trying to praise others that have really done a transformative job. And so, I'm curious because my vision of this is, I think, like that of many Republicans and frankly I think most Democrats as well, which is that we don't want a government monopoly. We don't want any monopoly. We want some competition. And I wanted to ask you about that because it's something that came up a lot when you talked with my colleague Lisa about this issue, the role that you want to competition to play.

Breanne Davis: A lot of us would say that competition makes each other better, and so I think the same applies here as far as competition goes. And any of us who have paid attention to the broadband issue have read articles about census blocks and how, you know, one service provider is saying, well, we cover this area and this area is covered while they're really maybe just serving one home or one business in that entire census block. So it really gives us a false idea of, you know, what our coverage map across Arkansas and across the nation actually looks like. And so, you know, I think a great example is we have a smaller town in Arkansas. It's called Fairfield Bay, and the mayor there, they just built a convention cente. And it's a great community, but they don't have broadband. I think it's hard to have a hotel and a convention center and ask people to come in when they can't connect to the Internet. The mayor there couldn't get anyone to partner up with him to bring broadband to that area. And so, I think that'd be a great example when we talk about competition that, you know, there's no one there willing to serve that community. And so, him partnering with someone to bring maybe a smaller Internet service provider into community, and then all of a sudden some of the other Internet service providers are jumping at the chance. They know we'll come there, we'll bring a service out to you. And so it makes people, when they realize someone else is coming out that way or there's going to be competition, it makes people react. It makes them move and want to suddenly help solve an issue.

Christopher Mitchell: When you posted your bill, I'm sure it got some attention, and then I think your bill made it through the first committee without any, um, changes to it, any amendments, unanimously. Then it had some significant revisions, and I'm just curious if you can give us a sense of what the reaction was from particularly the three big companies you mentioned, the big telephone companies that have received almost a quarter of billion dollars, I guess, over the last ten years, but also maybe the big cable companies. Like, what kind of a reaction did you get in general?

Breanne Davis: From those companies actually, the day that we announced our initiatives and that bill, I think I had every single one of them in my office that day just talking through it and what it meant. And to be honest with you, they were actually great to work with, and I just appreciated the back and forth that we were able to have. It was good conversation and good discussion about what we were doing and why, and just sort of getting them to at least be neutral on the bill. But some of the changes that we did make resulted in, I would say, unintended consequences from the bill. And so, I've kind of talked about the K-12 initiative bringing broadband to all of our public schools, and there was some language in there that we had stricken originally that impacted our department of information services that worked with the schools and even our higher ed institutions have their own network as well across the state. And so, striking some of that language impacted that and that was not our intent, so some of the amendments that we made were sort of to fix some of those things. We wanted to make sure that we were targeted in what we were doing. I mean, our purpose was just that underserved or unserved areas would be able to get the coverage, and so other things that were happening within that bill — and even you mentioned some of the companies that were already grandfathered in, like electrical companies in certain communities and stuff. So, we wanted to, like, make sure we kept that stuff as it was. We weren't trying to mess with too many things. We were very specific in our purpose and wanted to really keep that vision and move that way.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the — as I read it, your initial bill would have, aside from the unintended consequences which I'll admit I paid less attention to because I'm hyper focused on municipal networks, but I very much appreciate the importance of the committee process to work those things out. I deplore when states and the federal government fail to do that due diligence, so I'm glad that that was caught. But it originally basically would have given cities total authority. You would have had no restrictions, which is what we support at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and what most states have, and you ended up with a bill in which I believe still the municipalities that have electric utilities have broad authority. Now the cities that don't have municipal electric utilities, I believe they have to get a grant in order to be able to build or to partner. And I'm curious, was that something that you saw then as a compromise? Or given that you wanted to make sure you were very competitive in receiving the grants, was that your aim to limit in that way?

Breanne Davis: Yeah, that was more our aim to limit it that way. The lead sponsor on the House end, Representative DeAnn Vaught, her and I just had a lot of conversations between each other just saying, okay, you know, we have groups leaning on us, asking us to amend this or that. And so we just talked back and forth, like, all right, at the end of this, we are not going to give. We think we have the support to get this through as it is right now. As it was originally before any amendments, you know, we believed that we have that support, but we wanted to, like I just spoke about the unintended consequences, but we wanted to make sure that we kept our vision for the bill and what we wanted it to do. So I would say, you know, we don't feel like we compromised and we feel like we really honed in a little bit more on the vision and our intent for the bill. And we really wanted Johnny Rye because it still does say on its own or in partnership with the private entity and yes, then apply for that grant or loan money, and that's what we wanted our cities and counties to do is go after that money that's out there. And so that was really our push towards that direction.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to finish up by noting that there's, I think, a very bright future for a lot of rural Arkansas because of just a lot of co-ops. A lot of the electric co-ops are making really smart investments. I'm very hopeful that we see Arkansas leapfrogging. You know, I think there's a history perpetuated by media often that Arkansas, something may be wrong with it or something like that. I have an uncle that lives there. I've loved my visits to Arkansas. It's beautiful. So, I definitely hope that this works out in the way that you're hoping. I hope you get some of these ReConnect funds.

Breanne Davis: And you know, we're of course going to be watching this and making sure that, you know, different part of government entities that, you know, need to be reaching out to municipalities do so. And you know, if this build it and go far enough, then it's something that I think we're definitely willing to revisit in the next legislative session to make sure that this is getting done for Arkansans.

Christopher Mitchell: I have to say that for those of us who've been working on this and as you've seen, there's no partisanship at the local level. I'm very glad to see that in Arkansas at the state level that you are able to work, you know, sort of pragmatically on it as well, and I hope that that's infectious to other states.

Breanne Davis: Yes. I do too. It was really a great session, and I love the results that we got on it.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well thank you so much for your time today.

Breanne Davis: Yeah, thank you. I appreciate it. I enjoyed being on. Thanks for having me.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Arkansas state senator Breanne Davis discussing her bill SB 150 which reduces some of the barriers to local broadband network projects. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 356 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.