Troubled by many Arkansas students' lack of access to high-speed Internet connections, Gov. Mike Beebe is calling for the state's public schools to be granted the right to access an existing statewide broadband network serving higher education institutions.
Enacting that recommendation would require overturning a state law, known as Act 1050, that currently forbids K-12 schools from plugging into the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network, or ARE-ON. Some in the state have criticized that statute as serving the interests of telecommunications companies at the expense of children.
Experts say public schools are able to access most, but not all, of the similar publicly run statewide and regional broadband networks now in operation in other parts of the country.
"It has become clear that Act 1050 has impeded our progress in developing a reliable and efficient broadband infrastructure for Arkansas students," Beebe, a Democrat, said in a June 13 press release. "Giving K-12 schools the opportunity to access ARE-ON will provide better online availability for our students and save our taxpayers money."
The recommendation comes on the heels of the recently released Arkansas Digital Learning Study, prepared by a committee established following the 2013 passage of legislation requiring all Arkansas students who will graduate in the 2018-19 school year and beyond to take at least one digital learning course.
According to the study, few Arkansas schools now meet the generally accepted current minimum bandwidth target of 100 megabits per second per 1,000 students, and few schools are on track to meet the more aggressive target of at least 1 gigabit per second per 1,000 students by the 2017-18 school year.
Arkansas currently provides some connectivity for K-12 public schools, but it is woefully inadequate, according to the study. As a result, 71 percent of all the public school bandwidth in the state is purchased on the private market, where schools can be charged anything from $1.20 per megabit to "exorbitant" amounts as high as $280 per megabit, according to the report.
All told, the committee found, 86 percent of the state's K-12 education network connections provide less than 20 mbps—a feeble level of connectivity in the current era of online assessments, 1-to-1 computing, and extensive use of multimedia resources in the classroom.
In addition to Mr. Beebe, a coalition of business leaders who came together at the governor's behest under the moniker FASTERArkansas has also pushed for the repeal of the state law preventing K-12 schools from accessing ARE-ON. The competing—and powerful—interests on either side of the issue are contributing to "one of the fiercest lobbying fights in memory," according to senior editor Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times, an alternative-weekly publication based in Little Rock.
Nationally, the issue of high-speed Internet for public schools has become a front-burner issue. President Obama has called for an ambitious effort to bring high-speed connections to 99 percent of U.S. public schools by 2018, and the Federal Communications Commission is in the midst of overhauling the federal E-rate program, which provides subsidies to schools and libraries purchasing telecommunications services. Despite the high-level attention, though, finding ways to connect rural schools, ensure affordable connections for most districts, and promote price transparency have all proven to be persistent challenges.
In an interview, Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md., described statewide and regional networks and consortia as a "very attractive way for states to meet the broadband needs of K-12 schools."
"It has worked in other states," he said, citing the networks in Maine and Utah as particularly strong examples.
The general principle, Levin said, is that districts should be able to get much better prices for broadband service by working together to aggregate their demand and centralize their procurement processes than by engaging in hundreds of individual negotiations with telecoms and other providers.
The "aggregation of expertise" is also key, he said.
"It's very difficult for school districts to obtain the expertise they need to design and procure networks that cover all their bases," Levin said. "Being able to rely on external consortia to represent their interests is a big benefit."
In Arkansas, the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network (ARE-ON), shown in its current state in the map below, serves as a 2,200-mile fiber-optic cable "backbone" connecting 24 cities and all the public degree-granting institutions in the state with high-speed 1- and 10-gigabit connections. The network was funded in part with a federal stimulus grant of more than $100 million.
David Merrifield, the chief technology officer for the organization that manages ARE-ON, said in an interview that the network has enough capacity to "easily withstand connections" for the state's 258 public school districts and charter schools. But making the plan work, he said, would be a "massive" technical undertaking that would likely involve working with private providers to provide "last-mile" connections (involving fiber-optic cable, circuits, switches, and related equipment) between schools and the existing network.
"We're not envisioning a massive new statewide fiber build," he said. "We already have the infrastructure that connects our various regions and nodes together."
At the request of the state legislature, Merrifield said, ARE-ON this week began work on an analysis to better understand how an expanded network incorporating K-12 schools might be designed—and how much such an expansion might cost.
The biggest hurdle, he said, will likely be changing the state law, which will require overcoming the interests of private Internet service providers who benefit from the current rules preventing K-12 schools from leveraging the existing public infrastructure.
"Officially, we have a neutral stance on this issue," Merrifield said. "But we're certainly very willing to take on the project if the state decides that's in their best interests."
Map of the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network, or ARE-ON, from www.areon.net.