Good news: Schools getting connected

Like all Arkansas public school students, Warren students Jackson Denton and Breize Fellows are being connected to high-speed broadband internet.
Like all Arkansas public school students, Warren students Jackson Denton and Breize Fellows are being connected to high-speed broadband internet.
By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Ready for some good news? Do you remember a few years ago when Arkansas’ public schools had inadequate internet connections, and there was a big controversy, and it seemed like this was going to be another one of those huge political fights requiring a lot of taxpayer dollars?

Problem solved. Seriously.

Mark Myers, director of the state Department of Information Systems (DIS), told the House and Senate Education Committees Monday that by July 2017, Arkansas will be one of three states where every school is connected to high-speed broadband internet. The fiber network will give schools speeds of 200 kilobits per second per student, which is twice the generally accepted minimum standard of 100 kbps. The network is ready to expand those speeds to 1 megabit per second per student without having to buy new equipment.

Let’s review the back story. Back in 2013, it became obvious that many Arkansas schools didn’t have the broadband they needed to use the internet as a learning resource or to administer online tests associated with the Common Core. Arkansas received a “D” in the 2013 “Digital Learning Now” report from the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

The state was spending huge dollars and getting terrible results. An report by the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee had found the state had invested almost $160 million in vendor costs since 1992 on the Arkansas Public School Computer Network (APSCN), a backbone that was offering schools a measly 5 kbps. At a time when everyone was moving to high-speed options like fiber, the state was still spending 70 percent of its budget on copper wiring – basically, a stagecoach on an interstate highway.

Individually, schools were doing a much better job of connecting to the internet than the state was. APSCN was costing an average of $286 per month per megabit – the equivalent of a household paying $2,800 to $5,700 for cable modem service. Meanwhile, schools were paying about $13 to private providers to supplement their connections. Because of that, according to a 2014 report by the nonprofit group EducationSuperHighway, 58 percent of Arkansas districts were meeting the 100 kbps standard, largely through their own efforts. However, 17 percent offered speeds of only 10-49 kbps, while 5 percent were even slower.

Naturally, there was a big argument about what to do about all of this. For a time, some wanted schools to hook up to the state’s Arkansas Research Education Optical Network, or ARE-ON, a private network used by universities and hospitals. Schools were prohibited by state law from connecting to it, and private internet providers were opposed because they didn’t want to compete with the government. There was talk of a special legislative session.

Then a consultant, CT&T, found that connecting to ARE-ON was not cost-effective and that instead the state should partner with those private providers. The move to connect to ARE-ON lost steam. Newly elected Gov. Asa Hutchinson ordered DIS to create a high-speed backbone for schools. The state worked with than 20 private providers. The timing was good because more fiber was being laid. In some cases, schools were let out of contracts that extended past the July 2017 goal.

The state is connecting to high-speed internet for about the same cost it was spending on those old slow connections. The annual total cost is just under $13 million a year, a fraction of the $2.19 billion budgeted for the public school fund in fiscal year 2017. E-rate, a federal program that provides funding for schools and libraries, will pay for 80% of the $6 million in transport costs. School districts don’t have to pay anything to be part of a secure statewide network.

So now, by the start of the 2017-18 school year, every public school student in Arkansas will have access to fast internet connections. Those connections will enable them and their teachers to use the internet for instruction and for school projects. Districts will spend less or, eventually for some, nothing on textbooks, which are extremely expensive, inflexible, and quickly become outdated. And as demands increase, so can the network. The big political fight never happened, and everybody got what they wanted.

Told you this was some good news.

Related: How two sisters and a cup of coffee changed a school.
In West Memphis, it’s all connected.

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