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Friday, July 25, 2014

Beebe, telecom companies fight over broadband

Posted By on Fri, Jul 25, 2014 at 9:13 AM

You get the distinct impression that Gov. Mike Beebe is pushing to deliver legislation to allow public schools to hook into an existing state broadband network before he leaves office at the end of the year. The vigorous pushback from telecommunications companies suggests as much.

Talk Business reports on this ongoing battle:

1) A telecom lobbyist says the 2011 legislation that prevented government competition with phone and cable companies across the spectrum of their services was carefully considered.

2) The lobbyist says phone companies have adequate facilities to reach schools and government should not be allowed to compete with private industry.

3) Beebe says the legislation was snuck through the General Assembly (yeah, it's always been easy for special interests to trick three-decade legislative technician supremo Beebe, whose many friends developed in years of service include prominent telecom lobbyists).

4) Beebe says schools should be allowed on a case-by-case basis to see if the state or a private company could serve their needs better.

Do you smell what I smell? Compromise and a special session to accomplish it?

If I had to guess, I'd guess a deal will be worked out to let public schools hook up with the state network, known as ARE-ON. But all other private monopoly communication rights will be protected against government competition. And some gravy undoubtedly could be provided to phone companies as lagniappe. (They've already received public subsidies in some cases for the lines installed to serve schools and other customers along the networks. Kind of like if the government bought me a printing press.)

It would be a shame to work a deal only pertaining to school broadband service.

Look no farther than Chattanoogawhere the local electric utility has gotten in the business of providing better, cheaper broadband — a huge lure to economic development. Its expansion has been stymied by a state law much like Arkansas's and it is seeking federal exemption. Why shouldn't all governments  be able to follow the quasi-government model used in Conway, with a provider of cable and broadband service? We let cities sell electricity and water. Why not TV and internet services?

If government could serve schools better, could it not also serve residential customers better? Don't they deserve "choice," too, the mantra of the Walton money backing the state broadband push?

Joe Six-pack, alas, employs no lobbyist at the state Capitol. (What, you thought elected officials served that role? Check their campaign contribution lists and get back to me.)

PS — A lobbyist active in this fight tells me I need a smell checker if I think I smell a compromise brewing. I didn't mean to suggest I possess such information. I just see that as a natural evolution in the Beebe style. If phone companies intend to give no quarter, it'll be an interesting battle — their billions against the Waltons' billions. But the telecom sources insist there's no quarter to be given. And it's also true if Beebe had had the votes, it would have been on the agenda of the last legislative session.

Here's what the telecom lobby had to say.

Here's what the Walton-backed FASTERArkansas coalition has to say about the phone company lobby's position.

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