Connecting state and local government leaders
Eight years after banning cities and towns from building high-speed internet networks, state lawmakers unanimously reversed course. Will more red states follow?
Pat Ulrich can’t make water-cooler talk about The Handmaid’s Tale or Shrill. “I can’t get Hulu or anything like that,” she says. If it’s on a streaming service, she probably hasn’t seen it.
Her home, in Arkansas, has no broadband internet connection. A cable company once quoted her $4,000 to install one, so she and her husband get mediocre Wi-Fi through a satellite provider. “It’s 20 gigabytes” per month, she says, “no different from using your phone.”
Connectivity isn’t just a problem for the state’s sizable rural population. Ulrich lives in a suburb of Little Rock and commutes into the city each day to work as a web developer for the Arkansas Arts Center. Needless to say, she never works from home.
Arkansas is the least connected of the 50 states, according to BroadbandNow, a group that tracks consumer options. Since 2011, the state has banned cities and towns from building their own networks, outlawing a local solution that has been hailed as an effective way for communities to connect themselves when they don’t have internet providers.
This year, however, Arkansas appears to be having a change of heart. Under the weight of constituent complaints about lousy internet—and after years of waiting for subsidies to goad telecom giants into expanding the infrastructure—the state legislature in February passed a bill to repeal its ban. Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson said he will sign it.
That this is happening at all is significant. That it’s happening in a deep-red state is perhaps monumental.
Arkansas outlawed municipal broadband in 2011 as a wave of other states passed similar laws. It was, in part, a factor of the Tea Party movement, which ushered small-government Republicans into state capitols. By 2018, 21 states had some law banning or restricting municipal broadband; many were cut-and-paste “model legislation” from the American Legislative and Exchange Council, backed by telecom giants. They sought to kill municipal broadband under the belief that “such services should not be offered by government in competition with private-sector providers.”
In Arkansas, Republicans outnumber Democrats 3-to-1 in the state house and 2-to-1 in the senate. Still, the bill passed unanimously.
State Senator Breanne Davis, a Republican and a co-sponsor of the bill, said the state saw the poor results of its previous policy. “We were one of the five states that had the most restrictive laws [on municipal broadband] in the nation,” she says, “and almost last in broadband.”
Only 75 percent of Arkansas homes have access to broadband. Even that statistic is overselling it, says BroadbandNow’s technical product manager Jameson Zimmer. Some of that data was compiled from reports from service providers, who might exaggerate their capacity, and rural lines classified as broadband are often sluggish by city standards. Despite billions in federal subsidies to get them up to speed, the cost to extend broadband lines (which can be thousands per house) has left swaths of the U.S. with 1990s-grade internet.
Davis says the state has been underwhelmed by the promise of the Connect America Fund, an FCC program meant to subsidize broadband in underserved areas.
“The top three companies got millions to bring broadband to Arkansas,” says Davis. “They’ve had that money so many years, and providers are not willing to use that to go into new areas.”
According to the Institute for Self-Reliance, the FCC committed $250 million from the Connect America Fund’s first phase of funding, doled out in 2011, to AT&T, Windstream, and CenturyLink for the purpose of spreading broadband in Arkansas.
After years of waiting for results, Davis says Arkansans are losing out on jobs. Employers are looking for remote workers who need access to broadband, for example.
“If someone with a degree in coding gets a remote job here, they can’t stay,” she says. Arkansans who want to take online classes face the same roadblock. “I’ve had people tell me they can’t pull up emails at their house,” Davis says. “They have to go to McDonalds and use the internet.”
It has caused other problems for constituents, too. Ulrich’s subdivision was built just 15 years ago, when broadband was the Cadillac of internet connections, not the standard. “Now people can’t sell their houses because there’s no broadband access,” she says. And when Arkansas imposed work requirements on Medicaid last year, recipients were required to find an internet connection to log work hours in order to keep their health care coverage. (A federal judge rejected the state’s work requirements in March)
Still, the new law won’t give towns and cities a full license to set up their own networks. A last-minute amendment stipulated they need a grant or loan from a second party. Davis hopes the changes will allow farming towns to access some of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $600 million fund to build broadband networks in rural areas.
Christopher Mitchell, the director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has campaigned against municipal broadband bans since they started sprouting up.
“For years, we couldn’t make a dent in them,” Mitchell says.
He sees the change in Arkansas as a milestone: It’s a red state, and constituent concerns overrode telecommunication interests and ideology.
North Carolina’s Republican legislature is also considering modifying its 2011 ban on municipal broadband. HB 431, called “the FIBER NC Act,” would allow local counties and cities to build infrastructure for broadband networks. Lawmakers are driven by similar constituent frustrations and fear of being technologically left behind. In January, Mississippi passed a law allowing rural electric cooperatives to offer broadband internet services.
Mitchell says he expects dominos will fall on statewide municipal broadband prohibitions as long people face what Americans increasingly can’t tolerate: not being able to get online.
“I do think you will see more changes as long as people have such bad internet,” he says, “and people are being so frustrated by it all the time.”
Nick Keppler is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Gizmodo Media Group, The Financial Times, The Daily Beast, Slate, Vice, and others. His website is nickkeppler.com.