What a Broadband Preemption Victory in Arkansas Means For Rural Cities

For those of us lucky enough to live in areas with easy access to high-speed internet, it can be easy to forget: access to broadband is not created equal. For many in rural areas and even suburban communities, there might be very little or nearly non-existent internet access. More than connecting to Netflix, Facebook or even your local newspaper, access to broadband impacts your education, job opportunities and even your health. In our 21st century economy, residents in mostly rural states like Arkansas can’t afford to wait any longer to connect.

Arkansas ranks 50thin connectivity and has an average speed of 29.1 megabytes per second. The average speed for the United States is 42.7 MBPS. But that could soon change.

Until recently, the Arkansas legislature preempted local governments from establishing municipal broadband services, leaving Arkansas communities at the mercy of private companies focused on profit. Now, Arkansas is looking to build the infrastructure it needs now for all of its communities, urban and rural.

The state’s legislature, with help from the Arkansas Municipal League and other organizations, unanimously passed a bill overturning the state’s eight-year-old municipal broadband preemption law. The bill was signed into law by governor Asa Hutchinson on March 6 of this year. Now, towns in Arkansas can work towards providing their citizens with quality internet access. This has the potential to be a national movement, as other states like Mississippi have taken similar actions.

Why does this matter for states like Arkansas and Mississippi? For starters, this returns local control to mayors, councilmembers and town administrators seeking to alleviate the burdens of citizens that do not have quality internet access. “Whatever preemption it is, it removes local control. Cities are capable of doing that locally and doing it in a tailored-way for that particular community; that works for those citizens, that works for their budget,” said Mark Hayes, Executive Director of the Arkansas Municipal League, in an interview. Legislation rolling back preemption helps these communities chart their own path to securing a 21st century infrastructure.

Mississippi and Arkansas rank near the bottom of the United State in downloading speed. Private-sector competition is touted by supporters of preemption bills as a solution to the connectivity problems of America’s many cities, towns and villages. In reality, over the past near-decade, private organizations have not provided the broadband infrastructure necessary for residents to even be able to stream TV shows online without delays or disconnections.

Municipal broadband can clearly make a difference for rural areas: Consider the town of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, just down the road from Fort Smith, Arkansas. Sallisaw created DiamondNet and provides speeds of up to 80 MBPS to a town of about 8,000 people. Even larger suburbs like Wilson, North Carolina, a city not far from the state’s second largest city of Raleigh, used municipal broadband to connect its community of about 50,000 to help sustain and grow local businesses.

With these examples in mind, the potential for local innovation on internet infrastructure stands out as one solution to bridging the connectivity gap. Communities in Arkansas are now empowered to pursue a 21stcentury infrastructure that will help local economies compete. “You provide more opportunities for private businesses to locate in areas with great natural resources, really nice people, good, hard-working folks, that can provide jobs…and enjoy a really honest, good, small town atmosphere,” said Hayes.

Bridging the gap in broadband access will require different solutions. Cities, towns and villages want to be at the forefront of finding those answers. But many states still prohibit and preempt local governments from creating policies that serve the unique needs of individual communities. As Hayes says, “The things you can do with that sort of powerful signal shouldn’t be limited to just the high-population pockets in the state.”

Other states can follow this example and allow every level of government to work together to respond to our national infrastructure needs. This week, our nation’s communities are recognizing Infrastructure Week, with a variety of events, discussions and advocacy actions. “Infrastructure” tends to invoke the physical objects we can see – roads, airports, bridges, tunnels. However, the infrastructure we usually don’t see, such as broadband, is just as important.

In 2018, NLC found 20 states had preempted municipal broadband, including Arkansas. Learn more about preemption of municipal broadband and other policy areas in NLC’s 2018 report, City Rights in an Era of Preemption.

Spencer Wagner small.jpgAbout the author: Spencer Wagner is a Local Democracy Associate with NLC’s Local Democracy Initiative. His research focuses on state preemption of local policy and its impacts.