Broadband improvement district measure clears House, heads to Senate

by George Jared ([email protected]) 299 views 

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed something that economic developers and those who live in rural areas in Arkansas already knew: access to broadband internet in many parts of the state is sparse. The Arkansas House passed a bill that could help to alleviate part of that problem.

HB 1788, which creates broadband improvement districts, passed through committee on Monday (March 29) and cleared the House of Representatives Tuesday (March 30) on a 97-0 vote. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lanny Fite, R-Benton, would allow for the creation of broadband improvement districts.

Fite said he thinks creating broadband improvement districts will spread access and ultimately bring down costs. Arkansas ranks 41st in the country in terms of broadband access and ranks last among all states in internet connectivity.

The legislation would allow for public-private partnerships to be formed. It is similar to how other improvement districts operate in the state that cater to other types of infrastructure improvements, such as water and sewer lines. It would also allow for public financing of such projects.

One example of a potential broadband improvement district might be a subdivision on the edge of a city that can’t get broadband access. An initial step in the process would be to get approval from a governmental entity such as a city or county. Then a public-private partnership could take over with the same rules and regulations that apply to other improvement districts in Arkansas. It will allow for greater private investment in the projects, Fite added.

The legislation could be used to improve existing sub-divisions, but Fite said he thinks the majority of broadband districts will be formed in new developments.

“Mainly, I think this will impact new developments. I see about 90% of this impacting that,” he said.

There was little vocal opposition to the bill when it was considered in committee. Fite told his colleagues it wasn’t a cure-all for the problem, but it was a step in the right direction.

“It won’t solve every need for broadband … but it’s a start,” he added.