Broadband can reach public schools with existing funds, access savings noted

story from Talk Business & Politics, a TCW content partner

Arkansas should be able to connect all of its schools to high-speed fiber optics broadband networks within a few years using $15 million it already spends annually on outdated copper networks along with federal funds, Gov. Mike Beebe and a group that works to connect schools announced Monday.

EducationSuperHighway, a national nonprofit that works to expand internet access in schools, has been partnering with the Department of Education to study the issue and will work with Arkansas to expand access as part of a pilot project that also includes Virginia.

CEO Evan Marwell said the state can become the first to meet the national ConnectED goal, announced by President Obama last summer, of connecting 99% of American students to at least 100 megabits per second with a target of one gigabit per second within five years. Just by reallocating its resources, Arkansas could be the first in the nation to meet the ConnectED goals because of its current financial commitment – “a commitment that is not replicated very often around this country,” Marwell said – along with the investment private providers have already made.

“There’s no reason that by 2018, Arkansas shouldn’t be able to have every public school with the broadband that they need,” Marwell said in an interview after the press conference.

Schools connect to the internet using the state’s Arkansas Public Schools Computer Network (APSCN) along with private providers that they hire. Marwell said the APSCN contract represents more than 50% of the state’s collective investment in connectivity but is delivering only 5% of the broadband that connects schools today.

Because it relies on copper networks, it pays nearly $300 per megabit per month. The state pays more than 22 times more per megabit than the $13 per megabit that school districts who buy their broadband directly pay. If a typical residential cable modem bill cost that much, a family would be paying $3,000 to $6,000 per month.

“So because of this cost inefficiency, if Arkansas schools had to rely only on the connectivity provided by the state network, 60% of them would have less internet access than each of you have in your home,” Marwell said.

Asked why no one before now had revealed how much the state was spending on copper wire, Beebe said, “That’s a really good question. I wish I was technologically smart enough to (have) told you six years ago or eight years ago I had that figured out. And presumably we’ve got technological people around here that could have raised that question, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t raised. The fact that it wasn’t raised five years ago or six years ago, however, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be raised today.”

Given the changes occurring in broadband access, Beebe has ordered an in-depth audit of the Department of Information Services, which helps provide the technical expertise in managing APSCN. Beebe said the DIS model, which involves raising its own revenues, may need to be changed or streamlined.

Arkansas is doing better than the national average in terms of connectivity, but almost half of school districts do not have connectivity required for 21st century learning, Marwell said.

Joe Freddoso, who managed the broadband backbone in North Carolina before joining EducationSuperHighway, said Arkansas can move ahead of other states because it already has made the political decisions to spend the money.

“You are investing enough money today in K-12 connectivity to reach your goal, to have high-bandwidth, high-value connectivity to every school,” he said. “You’re spending a portion of the money you spend today inefficiently.”

Freddoso said North Carolina faced a similar situation before it began its initiative. Today, 98% of its schools are fed by fiber optics lines.

The issue of broadband connectivity has become an important one in Arkansas after it came to light that many schools did not have enough broadband connectivity to take advantage of digital learning opportunities or to conduct online tests as part of the Common Core State Standards.

Beebe and the state’s private broadband providers have been at odds over whether to connect schools using private networks or the state’s ARE-ON network that connects universities, medical providers and others. Beebe appointed a group of business leaders known as FASTERArkansas that has been pushing for the state to expand the ARE-ON network to public schools. Private providers do not want to compete with a government-managed broadband entity. They say they have already laid the foundation for a high-speed network, but schools have not connected to it.

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Beebe said today he still wants schools to have the option of connecting to ARE-ON. Freddoso said he has met with private broadband providers who seemed open to working with the state on expanding broadband.

“The ones that I met with last week pledged that they would be on board if the business model worked, and I think that’s the process that we’re in now,” Freddoso said.

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