Highways and information superhighways were on the governor’s mind as he spoke to the state’s trucking industry on Wednesday (May 15). Every Arkansas community with more than 500 residents would have broadband access under a plan he released earlier in the day.
Hutchinson in March charged the Arkansas Development Finance Authority to create the Arkansas State Broadband Plan. The 79-page report, including appendixes, lays out the case for broadband internet’s advantages as well as proposed actions encouraging its adoption.
The report says state government’s focus should be on accessing federal programs, designing effective and fair regulations, reforming the use of state-owned assets so that private and non-governmental organizations can use them for delivering broadband, educating the public about broadband’s value, encouraging business investment, and making broadband affordable.
Speaking before the Arkansas Trucking Association shortly after releasing the plan, Hutchinson said increased broadband availability would improve rural quality of life, aid in recruiting industry, and help students.
“Much work to do, but that’s one of the key objectives that I’ll have over the next four years,” he said.
The report recommends creating a State Broadband Office. Currently, the director of the Department of Information Systems is the state’s broadband manager, responsible for serving as a single point of contact and for creating the state’s broadband plan. But under Act 792 passed by the Legislature this year, the manager becomes a governor’s appointee, which the report says will allow the position to dedicate more attention to the needs.
The report recommends Arkansas seek federal funding, which is available through seven agencies, the most important being the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Utilities Services.
Among the available programs are the Lifeline program, which expands telecommunications availability to lower-income individuals through the Universal Service Fund paid by phone users. The report says that program is underutilized. The Connect America Fund, administered by the FCC, provides $4.5 billion a year to expand broadband and voice access.
Arkansas does not have programs subsidizing broadband deployment, though the Arkansas High Cost Fund helps fund local telecommunications companies. The report calls the fund “an important part of ongoing efforts to close the digital divide,” but it should be reformed.
The report describes public and private assets that could be used to expand broadband access. Among those are utility poles which some providers said cost too much to rent for broadband usage. It says the Arkansas Public Service Commission should require electric cooperatives to provide fair access to competitive broadband providers. Public or quasi-public towers, such as water towers, could be required to offer access as well. Another possible regulatory change would be requiring new buildings to be broadband ready.
The report references an assertion by BroadBandNow that 641,000 Arkansans lack access to a wired connection capable of download speeds of 25 Mbps, which along with upload speeds of 3 Mbps is how the Federal Communications Commission defines broadband.
Meanwhile 721,000 have access to only one provider, and 251,000 have no wired provider. Much of the state has coverage of no more than 10 Mbps. While BroadbandNow says all Arkansans have access to mobile broadband, research by the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service would indicate otherwise. That research found that many areas of the state lacked even 5 Mbps of wireless coverage.
A 2017 American Community Survey report by the Census Bureau said that in 2015, 64.2% of Arkansans reported having a broadband internet subscription, compared to the national rate of 77%. A 2016 report relying on samples found Arkansas and Mississippi at the bottom of the nation with 70.9% having broadband subscriptions.
The report points out that many Arkansas cities do not yet meet the goal of download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second. Those include small towns like Harrisburg and Nashville, and also urban areas around Little Rock, Conway, Jonesboro, Texarkana, Fort Smith, Russellville and particularly West Memphis and Pine Bluff. Some rural areas have better speeds than some urban areas.
THE HIGHWAY PLAN
Speaking to the Arkansas Trucking Association, Hutchinson also discussed his highway plan, passed by legislators in the recently completed legislative session.
Lawmakers passed a bill raising almost $95 million annually for state highways while also raising money for cities and counties.
They enacted a wholesale gas tax that would be the equivalent of 3 cents per gallon, and one for diesel fuel that would be the equivalent of 6 cents per gallon. Act 416 would raise a minimum of $35 million from new casino tax revenues, restricted reserve funds and other general revenue sources.
Meanwhile, voters will be asked to pass a constitutional amendment in 2020 permanently extending the 10-year half-cent sales tax voters passed in 2012. It would raise about $205 million annually for state highways while also raising money for cities and counties.
Hutchinson said lawmakers did not have a defined plan as they entered the session. Negotiations during one intense weekend raised the total package from $265 million to $300 million.
Hutchinson noted that the amendment would return Arkansas to its traditional pay-as-you go method, rather than the bond issue that paid for the Connecting Arkansas Program passed in 2012. He said that would save 25% in interest and legal fees.
Meanwhile, he pointed to the state’s luring of the $90 million CZ-USA firearms manufacturing facility to Little Rock. It will employ up to 565 workers over the next six years.
He said the Czech Republic-based firm originally was deciding between Missouri and Kansas when Arkansas entered the competition.