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Arkansas School-Broadband Landscape Not So Bleak After All, Group Contends

arkansas-governor-mike-beebe-500px.jpgThe push to provide all Arkansas schoolchildren with high-speed Internet connections took another turn this week, with Gov. Mike Beebe and the state department of education teaming up with a prominent broadband-advocacy group that says it can help the state meet national school-connectivity goals for less money and effort than was previously believed necessary.

In announcing their new partnership with San Francisco-based nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, Arkansas officials said they now believe their state can become the first in the nation to provide all students with 1 megabit per second of connectivity by 2018.

That goal would be achieved by implementing two strategies: Reprogramming $15 million in existing funds to support fiber-optic, rather than copper, networks, and better leveraging federal dollars available to help schools access broadband connections.

"Providing our schools with high-speed broadband connections is critical to preparing our students for the modern economy," said Gov. Beebe, a Democrat, in a statement issued this week. "With the leadership of the Arkansas Department of Education, the General Assembly, our school districts and service providers, we can give our children the resources they need to compete and succeed."

The announcement comes just two months after Beebe and a coalition of Arkansas business leaders launched a public campaign to change a state law, known as Act 1050, that prohibits K-12 schools from connecting to the state's high-powered broadband network for colleges and universities, known as ARE-ON. That push came on the heels of a state-commissioned study that painted a bleak portrait of Arkansas schools' Internet connectivity.

Beebe, who is set to step down from office before the legislature opens its next session in January, has been unable to find the necessary votes to overturn Act 1050.

And now, EducationSuperHighway is questioning the data and conclusions contained in the Arkansas Digital Learning Study, released last May, which argued that the state's schools have among the least connectivity in the country.

"The governor has made it clear that he thinks [Act 1050] should change, but that was also before we had this information from EducationSuperHighway and their preliminary study," said Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Beebe, in an interview.

"The overarching goal is still better broadband for students. There are new avenues coming to bear to reach that."

In an interview, Evan Marwell, the CEO of EducationSuperHighway, said the committee that produced the Arkansas Digital Learning Study "only had half the [relevant] information, and it was the bad half."

Marwell agreed with the study's conclusion that the state's existing public network provides substandard connectivity to schools, saying the network relies almost entirely on outdated copper-based technology.

But Arkansas schools are also getting a "tremendous amount of bandwidth" on the private market—a reality the state committee failed to account for, he said. 

As a result, EducationSuperHighway found, 51 percent of Arkansas schools already have enough connectivity to meet the current standard of 100 kilobits per second, per student—well above the national average of 37 percent.

And getting all Arkansas students to the more ambitious goal of 1mbps by 2018 can be achieved by redirecting existing funds that currently support the public copper network and by better leveraging federal dollars available through the E-rate program, Marwell maintained.

Providing schools with such high-speed connectivity emerged as a front-burner national education policy issue in 2013, when President Barack Obama launched an initiative dubbed ConnectED.

The focus of EducationSuperHighway's work to date in Arkansas has been conducting an inventory of what type of connectivity each school in the state is purchasing, how much they are paying for it, and how much bandwidth they still need to meet national standards. There is evidence of wide variability in how much schools are paying for similar levels of connectivity, with some being charged exorbitant rates, the group found.

In the coming months, Marwell said, the group hopes to release the information via a web portal that will allow schools and districts in the state to see what each other are paying for bandwidth.

Such pricing transparency is also the focus of a partnership between EducationSuperHighway and Virginia state officials. 

Many telecommunications companies and Internet service providers have strongly resisted calls for greater transparency in how much they charge schools for bandwidth.

In Arkansas, telecoms and private providers have also strongly resisted the push to allow K-12 schools to connect to ARE-ON.

Marwell said he sees EducationSuperHighway's role as helping bridge the divide between the public and private sectors in Arkansas, which he described as a function of poor communications and frequent misunderstandings.

"Part of our decision to come into Arkansas is that we saw an opportunity to push the 'reset' button on that conversation and bring it to a more effective place," he said.

For the time being, details are scant on how the $15 million that EducationSuperHighway proposed be redirected from its current uses would be spent.

Marwell and DeCample, the governor's spokesman, both said a number of options—including building a new fiber-optic network, improving the state's existing public network for K-12 schools, or establishing connections between K-12 schools and ARE-ON—remain on the table.

Marwell described as a "logical conclusion" the idea that ARE-ON should play a prominent role in the state's efforts to improve K-12 broadband access, saying the network offers a "big backbone" with 31 existing hubs around the state and the ability cheaply purchase bandwidth and manage heavy traffic loads.  He expressed optimism that private providers might get on board with a plan involving ARE-ON once it becomes clear that establishing the "last-mile" connections between that network and K-12 schools and districts would remain the purview of the private sector.

Overall, Marwell said, his group's goal in Arkansas is to work with state officials and private providers to run a new procurement process this year that would allow for big changes in how schools obtain high-speed connectivity beginning with the 2015-16 school year.

"Come August of next year, we want [Arkansas] schools to have much more bandwidth than is already in place, paid for with existing money," he said.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe walks from a state Capitol news conference in Little Rock, Ark., in July. Photo by Danny Johnston/AP.


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