Speak Your Piece: Arkansas Battles over Municipal Broadband

Will Arkansas become the first state to rescind its ban on local-government ownership of internet service providers? With the issue before the state Legislature, citizen input could have an impact on the decision.

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What happens when rational thought, the will of the people, and true bipartisan behavior meet at the crossroads? Broadband for all might be one result. Arkansas might test the question, depending on the state Legislature’s actions in upcoming weeks.

The real legislation, SB 150, unanimously passed out state Senate committee on February 7. But then the full state Senate hijacked the bill and put compromising restrictions in the wording. Now it’s up to the state assembly to restore the wording back to its original intent.

Arkansas is one of 21 states whose legislatures have regulated in varying degrees municipalities’ rights to own networks and sell broadband services. Until now, none of these laws have been rescinded. The Tennessee prohibition on community broadband came close to being overturned in 2017.

In real terms, the effect of the ban on municipal networks is that about 40% of Arkansans don’t have access to broadband as defined by the FCC. Arkansas is the second-to-last state in broadband coverage. Thousands of people depending on Medicaid lost their benefits due to a new state reporting requirement that only allowed aid recipients to respond on the Internet.

Legislative chess match

There is a chess match between the two chambers in the Legislature. As is always the case with these battles for broadband, this is the point at which citizens of the kids and stakeholders have to watch the legislation – and the legislators – closely. In previous battles in other states, activists have caravanned to statehouses to turn the tide in favor of pro-municipal broadband outcomes.

The original version of SB150 sponsored by four Republican women senators and 12 Republican women members of the Arkansas House of Representatives “would have removed the state’s legal barriers that currently prevent municipalities from doing their part to help their communities achieve a high quality of life and stay competitive in the emerging global economy,” states Jim Baller of the law firm Baller Stokes & Lide, and a leading community broadband advocate. “That version sparked hope for a better future for the businesses, institutions, and residents of Arkansas.”

The far more restrictive version of SB150 that passed the full Senate is a significant step backward. Now advocates feel it’s up to the Arkansas House of Representatives to get this right.

Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, concurs. “Despite the setback in the state Senate, we are excited to see this leadership from a state that increasingly recognizes the benefits of local networks rather than shipping their wealth to Dallas and the East Coast. For too many years, the big cable and telephone companies have limited local Internet choice but this bill is a first step to improving Internet access for everyone.”

Vocal and spirited effort by community groups and businesses can shift the outcome of these legislative matches over broadband. Citizens have coalesced around specific goals that broadband can facilitate. Rallying under the banner of economic development, for example, Georgia residents stymied anti-muni broadband sentiment in their state legislature. That body encourages muni participation in broadband.

Telehealth to the rescue

In Virginia, Georgia, Kansas and other states in which telcom incumbents and their lobbyists over the last five years tried to ban muni broadband, residents and local businesses took the battles to the statehouses. And they were victorious.

A singleness of purpose could add additional weight to the effort in the assembly to punch the ball across the finish line: education, public safety, agricultural, or economic development opportunities. There are already telehealth forces at work in Arkansas that pro-municipal allies can leverage.

Telehealth in Arkansas is a powerful and compelling story.

Assessment by video also saves significant costs. “If someone injured their hand on a farm or in an industrial plant, they would be sent by helicopter to our hospital, we’d check them and send them home to wait for a doctor to schedule them for a visit,” says Tina Benton, Center for Distance Health Director at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). That helicopter costs $30,000 a trip.

In 2014, UAMS partnered with the Arkansas Trauma Communications Center (ATCC) to create an orthopedics hand injury program. Benton says, “Now we can be hundreds of miles away, yet examine the hand by video and direct treatment at the hospital nearest the patient. We can coordinate access to fellowship-trained hand surgeons when necessary.”

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