In­ter­net ac­cess project nears end

All schools will have broad­band

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BRIAN FAN­NEY

A years­long project to get high-speed In­ter­net into ev­ery school in Arkansas will con­clude be­fore sum­mer break ends.

By run­ning fiber-op­tic ca­bles from the Ozarks to the Delta, and serv­ing all 477,268 students in be­tween, Arkansas will be one of a hand­ful of states that guar­an­tees the ser­vice ev­ery­where.

The achieve­ment is the re­sult of a state Depart­ment of In­for­ma­tion Sys­tems project in­volv­ing more than 20 telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies. The project is largely funded by the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion.

The fed­eral E-Rate pro­gram was re­vamped in 2014 when the FCC in­creased its bud­get by $1.5 bil­lion to $3.9 bil­lion an­nu­ally. Evan Mar­well, founder of the Cal­i­for­nia-based Ed­u­ca­tion Super High­way, said that led to in­creased state par­tic­i­pa­tion na­tion­wide, but Arkansas started ear­lier and has im­proved more than most.

As a re­sult, he said, the state has be­come a na­tional leader.

“Look, Arkansas took a sit­u­a­tion where the state was one of the worst in the na­tion in terms of ef­fec­tively

us­ing the re­sources that they have, and they’ve turned it into one of the best,” Mar­well said. “We think that the state has done a ter­rific job to be quite hon­est.”

Mar­well’s non­profit — funded by or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion and the Chan Zucker­berg Ini­tia­tive — has tracked the na­tional move­ment to bet­ter con­nect the na­tion’s schools since 2012.

It also ad­vised Arkansas on how to wire the schools in 2014 — though the state ini­tially

ig­nored some of Mar­well’s rec­om­men­da­tions be­fore re­bid­ding state con­tracts af­ter Gov. Asa Hutchin­son took of­fice in 2015.

Yes­sica Jones, di­rec­tor of the Depart­ment of In­for­ma­tion Sys­tems, said just a hand­ful of school con­nec­tions have yet to be made out of the nearly 300 to­tal. She said they could be con­nected as soon as this month.

“It’s go­ing to be in­cred­i­ble. Now, students are go­ing to be able to stream on­line videos — or any­thing,” she said. “If you think about it, ev­ery­thing now is just go­ing on­line, and the way the kids learn has changed.”

At Beebe El­e­men­tary School, for ex­am­ple, teach­ers said in in­ter­views last year that students had vis­ited with a South African pen­guin hos­pi­tal, learned from NASA of­fi­cials, spo­ken with New Zealan­ders to un­der­stand time zones and con­ducted a vir­tual ca­reer day with for­mer students from Louisiana to Cal­i­for­nia via their In­ter­net con­nec­tion.

“It helps Beebe to see that there’s a world out there,” said Dawn Cle­venger, who at the time taught fourth-grade math, so­cial stud­ies and sci­ence at Beebe El­e­men­tary School.

Hutchin­son also is count­ing on the broad­band con­nec­tions to de­liver on a cam­paign prom­ise to of­fer com­puter cod­ing classes in ev­ery Arkansas class­room. Many ru­ral schools can­not find teach­ers for in-per­son classes, but students can still learn us­ing on­line classes through Vir­tual Arkansas. That pro­gram is run by a part­ner­ship be­tween the state Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and the Arkansas Ed­u­ca­tion Ser­vice Co­op­er­a­tives. The pro­gram pro­vides dig­i­tal courses to pub­lic school students in Arkansas.

Mar­well said more ru­ral students are get­ting ac­cess to re­sources that were pre­vi­ously only avail­able in more ur­ban districts.

In 2013, just 30 per­cent of school districts na­tion­ally were meet­ing the In­ter­net speed goal — 100 kilo­bits per sec­ond per stu­dent — set by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. Now, 88 per­cent of school districts are meet­ing that goal.

Still, in the group’s 2016 an­nual re­port, just five states boasted 100 per­cent con­nec­tiv­ity un­der the 100 kbps per stu­dent fed­eral stan­dard. Those states are Hawaii, Ken­tucky, North Dakota, South Carolina and Wy­oming.

Of those, only Hawaii and Ken­tucky are us­ing all fiber-op­tic ca­bles, which can han­dle much faster speeds than an­ti­quated cop­per wiring can.

This year, Arkansas will also boast 200 kbps per stu­dent con­nec­tions — dou­ble the na­tional stan­dard — on all fiber-op­tic con­nec­tions. The fiber-op­tic lines and net­work equip­ment pur­chased by the state can han­dle 1,000 kbps per stu­dent with­out replacement.

“I think it’s been the com­bi­na­tion of cat­alytic change in the FCC’s E-Rate pro­gram, sig­nif­i­cant in­creases in the af­ford­abil­ity of broad­band, as well as in­volve­ment and lead­er­ship by gover­nors across the coun­try,” Mar­well said of the na­tional im­prove­ment.

“Gov. Hutchin­son was one of the early ones to take up the cause, but we now have 43 gover­nors across the coun­try who’ve com­mit­ted to get­ting all their schools con­nected.”

Band­width on the new Arkansas net­work costs $3.70 per megabit. Mar­well said the na­tional av­er­age is $7 per megabit.

The old Arkansas net­work cost $286 per megabit, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 Ed­u­ca­tion Super High­way study. How­ever, schools pur­chased roughly 95 per­cent of their band­width from the pri­vate mar­ket. That cost about an­other $11.30 per

megabit, said Don McDaniel, en­ter­prise net­work ser­vices di­rec­tor for the Depart­ment of In­for­ma­tion Sys­tems.

In to­tal, the state will pay about $14 mil­lion per year for the new net­work, with the ma­jor­ity of the cost re­im­bursed by the fed­eral E-Rate pro­gram, McDaniel said. It paid about $13 mil­lion a year for the old net­work.

Schools will no longer pur­chase broad­band ac­cess di­rectly from pri­vate providers, sav­ing them money and pa­per­work.

Be­yond schools, state of­fi­cials have long touted the broad­band ex­pan­sion as one way to make it more af­ford­able for providers to ex­pand to ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.

Su­san Chris­tian, vice pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing for Jones­boro-based Rit­ter Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, said the com­pany has been able to grow be­cause of its con­tract. It con­nected about 75 dif­fer­ent school districts, ac­cord­ing to state data.

“We have not done any res­i­den­tial over­build­ing be­cause of it, but we have grown more busi­ness-to-busi­ness re­la­tion­ships, not only in new com­mu­ni­ties, but the ex­ist­ing com­mu­ni­ties we serve be­cause some of these schools were out­side of our tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory,” Chris­tian said. “As we took fiber to the schools, that opened up new op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

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