The ambitious effort to expand broadband capability in Arkansas public schools moved forward on Tuesday (Dec. 3) as two working groups accepted an engineering report and recommended the state proceed with a potential public-private partnership.
Administration and industry officials have been working on a plan to boost the state’s public schools to a nationally recommended broadband capability of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff. The average Arkansas school district with 1,800 students currently has 40 Mbps of bandwidth and needs at least 140 Mbps more, according to an earlier Department of Information Services report, but industry leaders dispute that assumption.
The Quality Digital Learning Study (QDLS) committee and the FASTER (Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results) panel – both of which consist of business, economic and state policy leaders – forwarded an Engineering/Infrastructure Task Force report to the Governor. The report outlines four major recommendations.
• Connect school districts with a robust fiber-optic network.
• Centralize management for statewide network support services.
• Adopt the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) recommendations for K12 bandwidth as minimum targets. – Efficiently aggregate statewide demand to achieve greater economies of scale, reduce costs, improve access, and deliver high-quality content.
The QDLS committee also recommended the state pursue a public-private partnership to accomplish its overall goals; however, several broadband industry representatives on the panel abstained from the vote. The next step is producing a final report on an overall strategy for the Governor and, eventually, state lawmakers.
Also, an invitation for bid for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to build out their infrastructure to the public schools in their territories to meet the group’s goals was extended to Dec. 27.
One of the major discussions the groups have been debating is whether or not to tap into an existing statewide data network known as ARE-ON. The Arkansas Research Education Optical Network (ARE-ON) serves Arkansas institutions of higher education and hospitals with a high-speed fiber network capable of transporting enormous amounts of data used in research and medical cases.
Some industry officials have privately expressed concerns that tapping into ARE-ON could undermine private industry broadband efforts. State officials supportive of the move contend that private companies will benefit from the build-out needed for rural communities to access ARE-ON.
At Tuesday’s meeting at the Department of Education building in Little Rock, industry officials representing cable, telecommunications and broadband providers on the QLDS panel raised concerns about the data that will drive final decision-making, a price tag for the broadband expansion, and potential statutory concerns that could prohibit ARE-ON from being used for K-12 purposes.
Cox Communications director of government affairs Len Pitcock said, “I think our position is in the absence of complete and accurate data and the absence of certainty of funding, and statutory concerns … we are going to abstain. We’re not in opposition or support of this.”
Kendall Gibbons, Arvest Bank’s EVP for Information Technology, said tapping the ARE-ON network makes sense. He noted that the high-speed network is “top tier” with 18 access points, or nodes, across the state. By contrast, Mississippi’s comparable network only has four access points.
“It is a very rich resource Arkansas should take advantage of, in my opinion,” he said.
Dr. Jay Barth, a member of the State Board of Education, emphasized that while the group has been focused on the network, it was also important to have a “human piece” to the final proposal.
“We have to have the right people in place at the district level to have everything in place,” Barth said. “How can we help districts get the right folks there, have them be trained and train educators to use the new tools. We need to remember that.”
The QLDS group is not expected to meet in person again before the end of the year. Once the invitation to bid from ISPs are collected at the end of December, the group is expected to debate a potential price tag for what it would cost to build out school access across the state in conjunction with the panel’s goals.