Broadband internet access for every Arkansan is the challenge being put forth by the state’s legislative leadership.
The House speaker and Senate president presented their call to action on Wednesday to a joint meeting of the Advanced Communications and Information Technology committees.
Speaker Jeremy Gillam of Judsonia said it’s a priority backed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The Republican state representative said the Arkansas Economic Development Commission has also identified it as a critical tool, especially since the state ranks near the bottom of most connectivity studies.
“It has now become an essential fabric in so many areas of our lives,” said Gillam about broadband. “Not just from a perspective of a daily utility, it maybe even goes beyond that. It has become the 4th rail of economic development. It is just as important as your transportation infrastructure, your educational and workforce infrastructure, your tax structure.”
Representative Gillam’s call to “make sure that every home, every business and every school" has access to broadband carries bi-partisan support. He named Little Rock Democratic Rep. Warwick Sabin as a point man for the House in crafting the plan. Sabin has been a central figure in many tech-related pushes, including the Arkansas Innovation Hub and the governor's efforts to have coding taught in schools.
Democratic Minority Leader Michael John Gray agreed with Gillam that broadband is vital. Rep. Gray stressed that actual access will only truly be attained if affordable.
"Quality access and affordable access statewide is as important as rural electrification was in the ‘20s and ‘30s,” he said. “I just want to make sure we don’t say, ‘oh, we’ve got it out there to everybody’ without making sure it’s affordable to everybody.”
The committee voted to endorse the challenge presented by Speaker Gillam and Senate President Jonathan Dismang. A loose timeline was also adopted. It calls for legislative action in the next regular session in 2017. In the interim, members of the committee will spend December to spring touring the state and consulting with internet providers and residents. Committee Chair Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier) hopes to have a “measurable” plan crafted in summer 2016, for initial presentation next fall.
Scant details were offered, but Gillam said public-private partnerships will likely be coupled and bolstered with federal dollars, and “there may be a lot of opportunities there for partnership with the federal government.”
The Republican House speaker has support in leadership on both sides of the aisle, but he’ll have to navigate concerns of more conservative members of his caucus. Gillam declined to estimate the cost of such an undertaking, but it could be a big ask for some such as state Rep. Mary Bentley.
“It doesn’t have to mean we’re going to spend a bunch of money,” she said after noting the need for better services in her rural district, “but I think we owe it to constituents to look. I’ll have to wait and see what we’re going to come up with but we can’t just sit here and do nothing.”
Examples of broadband growth in other states, such as Tennessee and Kentucky, helped to inspire Gillam to propose the plan with Senator Dismang. He said attending national legislative conferences over the past few years has given him confidence expanding broadband capabilities can be done