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Internet measure anxiously awaited

by Andrew Moreau | February 14, 2021 at 2:05 a.m.

Cabot Mayor Ken Kincaide simply got tired of hearing communications providers promising to deliver high-speed internet service to the city, which is only 30 miles but internet light years from the Capitol.

So he took the initiative to change state law, allowing Cabot to create its own broadband future.

"Cabot can't be competitive without fiber internet," Kincaide said last week in an interview. "We're just asking the state to take the handcuffs off and let us make our own choices. We are not asking for any money -- we just need a new law to work in our favor and not against us."

Cities and counties without their own utility companies have been prohibited from raising money or forming public-private partnerships to expand broadband. They have been left at the whim of internet providers to decide when and how to deliver the service.

After taking office in January 2019, Kincaide became exhausted by the empty vows that service was on the way. It never arrived and Cabot wasn't going to sit around and wait, the mayor said.

"I heard things were going to change when I was running for mayor and here we are in 2021 and nothing's happened," he said. "It's just frustrating. Providers were promising they were going to take care of our people and they haven't. Nothing's changed."

The Cabot native worked with his state legislative delegation -- and went down to Little Rock to speak in person before House and Senate committees -- to advocate for changing Arkansas law so Cabot could raise money and build its own fiber network.

Senate Bill 74 unshackles cities and counties, giving them freedom to fund broadband investments in their communities or form public-private partnerships to accomplish that goal.

The bill flew through the House and Senate last month with no opposition and is sitting on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's desk awaiting final approval.

Cabot plans to have residents vote on a public bond issue this summer to provide $20 million to build a fiber-to-the-home network across the city, the mayor said. The city plans to buy the fiber and pay for construction and connectivity costs. Cabot will lease the network to a provider to deliver and operate the service.

And Cabot is not alone in preparing to spring into action once the new law is in place. Clarksville is ready to expand its fiber network to five surrounding communities.

The Johnson County city has invested nearly $11 million to build its own fiber network, which it could do because it owned and operated city utilities. Now, the new legislation gives it freedom to extend that network to surrounding communities.

Clarksville Connected Utilities, which operates the city's broadband network, intends to expand service to Coal Hill and Hartman as well as the Logan County communities of Paris, Scranton and Subiaco, according to General Manager John Lester.

The new legislation will allow the expansion. "There are no territory protections when it comes to broadband," Lester added. "Those communities have already expressed a desire to work with us."

Those efforts could signal a new trend for Arkansas cities to start taking control of their broadband future -- raising money and building networks to advance economic development, educational and health care opportunities for residents.

"It's a trend that I see and it's a trend that I like," Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said. "It gives communities the ability to take it upon themselves to finance projects if they're committed to building out broadband. That takes the burden off of us and others to figure out how to get the funds to expand."

Sen. Ricky Hill of Cabot sponsored the legislation and said he's pleased the bill is already boosting activity to expand high-speed internet in rural areas.

"Broadband is the electricity of the 21st century," Hill said. "This bill really allows communities to step up to the plate and help themselves. We need to provide it to every business throughout the state of Arkansas."


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