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Arkansas legislators told details of school broadband fix

story from Talk Business & Politics, a TCW content partner

Arkansas should be able to expand broadband access to all public schools without extra state funding because it’s currently wasting too much money on outdated technology and is not effectively leveraging federal funds, members of the House and Senate Education Committees were told Tuesday.

Evan Marwell, CEO of the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, said during the hearing that the state can reach the goal of serving all schools with one megabit per second per student by 2018.

Marwell spoke a day after announcing EducationSuperHighway’s partnership with the state during a press conference with Gov. Mike Beebe. EducationSuperHighway is working with the state at no charge as part of a pilot project that also includes Virginia.

Marwell said too many schools are connected inefficiently through the Arkansas Public School Computer Network (APSCN), which provides a broadband base for schools. APSCN has an annual budget of $21 million, including $11 million for connectivity and $4 million for distance learning, which recently has been phased out.

Those services, which are managed by the Department of Information Systems (DIS), cost an average of $286 per month per megabit – the equivalent of a household paying $2,800 to $5,700 for a cable modem, he said. That cost is due in part to the fact that some of the bandwidth has been built using outdated copper technology.

By contrast, the state’s most well-connected school district, Smackover in southern Arkansas, pays $1.50 for a megabit using fiber optics. All but 25 school districts purchase additional broadband from private providers at a cost of $13 per megabit.
Between state and district offerings, Arkansas provides an average of 117 kilobits per second per student at a monthly cost of $162 per megabit per second.

The state can also gain tens of millions of dollars by better leveraging federal funds it receives through eRate, the program that provides broadband funding for schools and libraries via a fee charged for telecommunications services. The state averages receiving about $4 from eRate for every $1 it invests. However, $6 million of APSCN’s cost is not eRate eligible. By better utilizing its funding to make those dollars eligible, Arkansas could see a significant increase in federal funds.

A group of 5-10 EducationSuperHighway staff members have been studying state data for about two months. After inventorying the state’s current broadband offerings, the group will work with the Department of Education, school districts, and private providers to expand broadband to schools across Arkansas.

Marwell told legislators that Arkansas was chosen for the project because it has already made a commitment to broadband access. Nationally, 51% of Arkansas schools have enough broadband for 100 kilobits per second per student, the current standard, compared to a national average of 37%. That still leaves 230,000 students in Arkansas not meeting that standard.

Joe Freddoso, who managed the pubic broadband backbone in North Carolina before joining EducationSuperHighway, said the group will have a better idea of the time frame for serving districts within a couple of weeks.

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.

State Rep. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said in the hearing Tuesday that the news coming from EducationSuperHighway is hopeful. “Let me just say that this is the most exciting thing I’ve heard in some time, such great promise,” she said.

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. Arkansas’ is the only one of 42 state/public networks that prohibits by law K-12 schools from connecting.

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.

Asked by state Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, how ARE-ON would fit into the picture, Marwell said that in other states, the research education network serves as the broadband backbone. Its use would lower the cost of bandwidth in part because ARE-ON is part of Internet2, a research- and education-based network that saves usage costs because it connects directly to content providers such as Google. ARE-ON personnel also could provide technical services to schools.

“There is a big role for an organization like ARE-ON, and it would be a shame if Arkansas didn’t take advantage of it because frankly it will just end up costing you more money if you don’t,” he said.

Freddoso emphasized the need for dialogue between the state and private service providers outside of the lawmaking process. He said the representatives of the three largest service providers with whom he worked in North Carolina started as account managers and are now regional sales directors because of the increased state business.

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Fredosso said Monday that he has had constructive discussions with private providers. Jordan Johnson, spokesman for Arkansas Broadband Coalition for Kids, which represents the providers, said in an email today, “The service providers are optimistically hopeful and welcome this effort as we move Arkansas forward. We are grateful for the work that both the legislature and the governor are doing to study this issue.”

Freddoso said North Carolina schools have doubled the amount of bandwidth demand in each of the past two years.

“Once we opened up the pipes and gave them scalable broadband, districts began to create ways to use the internet in education,” he said.

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