Arkansas State Legislature Significantly Expands Local Broadband Options

by Jim Baller, CLIC President

As the Arkansas General Assembly recently found in enacting SB74, “without access to voice, data, broadband, video, and wireless telecommunications services, citizens of Arkansas also lack access to healthcare services, education services, and other essential services; and that this act is immediately necessary to allow government entities to provide high quality voice, data, broadband, video, and wireless telecommunications services to their citizens.”  As a result, the Arkansas Senate voted 35-0 and the House voted 94-0 to give government agencies substantial new powers to help accelerate the deployment, adoption, and use of advanced communications services and facilities across the State. 

Designated as emergency legislation, SB74 moved quickly through the legislature and the Governor’s office.  It was introduced by five Republican sponsors – Senators Ricky Hill, Breanne Davis, and Missy Irvin, and Representatives Brian Evans and DeAnn Vaught – and it had the strong support of Governor Asa Hutchinson, who signed the bill into law — as Act 67 — on February 4, 2021.  As a result of the enactment of SB74, Arkansas now –

 ·       Allows government entities that own electric systems or cable television systems to provide communications services or facilities, now or in the future, directly or indirectly, with the exception of basic local exchange service;

·       Allows government entities to provide telecommunications services or facilities to support a wide range of emergency management, law enforcement, education, and healthcare activities; 

·       Allows government entities and their private partners to apply for and use grants or loans from programs that focus on extending services to unserved areas;

·       Allows government entities to “acquire, construct, furnish, equip, own, operate, sell, convey, lease, rent, let, assign, dispose of, contract for, or otherwise deal in facilities and apparatus” used to provide any or all of the following services: voice, data, broadband, video, or wireless telecommunications services;

·       Allows government entities to issue  general obligation bonds or impose special taxes to acquire or construct communications facilities, provided that the government entities (1) “partner, contract, or otherwise affiliate with” an entity that is experienced in such matters; (2) conduct due diligence in accordance with industry standards for such projects and in compliance with legal requirements for the kind of funding involved, (3) hold a public hearing, after giving at least 10 days prior public notice; and (4) afterward the hearing, “cause an election to be held as required by law.”  These requirements do not apply to government entities that qualify as owners of electric or cable TV systems; as providers of services relating to energy management, law enforcement, education, or health care.; or as providers of services pursuant to grants or loans under programs focusing on unserved areas.

Let’s hope that this big step in the right direction in Arkansas will be a harbinger of similar legislative actions across America to remove restrictions on local internet choice.