State hits Net mark at schools

All’s broad­band now high-speed

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

Arkansas is now one of a hand­ful of states that boasts uni­ver­sal high-speed broad­band con­nec­tiv­ity to its pub­lic schools, no mat­ter how ru­ral and iso­lated.

On Thurs­day, Gov. Asa Hutchin­son con­nected a ca­ble, and the Glen Rose School Dis­trict went on­line with a new high-speed broad­band net­work. The dis­trict joined the rest of that ed­u­ca­tional sec­tor in the state — all 1,064 schools and 477,000 stu­dents — in broad­band ac­cess.

The project was the re­sult of years of pub­lic pol­icy de­bate over whether pri­vate providers or a pub­lic net­work was the right an­swer for the state’s schools. Even af­ter law­mak­ers de­clined to open up the pub­lic net­work, the ini­tial plan for get­ting pri­vate com­pa­nies to bid on parts of the project by re­gion was scrapped.

Still, when work fi­nally started in July 2015 us­ing pri­vate providers, of­fi­cials said the net­work would be com­pleted two years later. On Thurs­day, of­fi­cials touted the ac­com­plish­ment as a prom­ise ful­filled.

Hutchin­son said the school broad­band project will have a par­tic­u­larly large im­pact on ru­ral schools that have not had the same ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy as more ur­ban dis­tricts.

“This is a school … that could be caught on the wrong side of the dig­i­tal di­vide if we do not pro­vide the ser­vices that were needed,” he said in Glen Rose High School’s au­di­to­rium.

The high-speed broad­band con­nec­tions have become nec­es­sary for stan­dard­ized test­ing, on­line

cour­ses and on­line field trips.

At Beebe Ele­men­tary School, for ex­am­ple, teach­ers said in in­ter­views last year, stu­dents had vis­ited 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.

Evan Mar­well, founder of the Cal­i­for­nia-based Ed­u­ca­tionSu­perHigh­way, a non­profit that tracks school con­nec­tiv­ity na­tion­ally, said Arkansas man­aged to get its schools con­nected at a “re­mark­able” pace.

“The rea­son you were able to get there so quickly is you had re­ally strong state lead­er­ship, strong state fund­ing and a re­ally strong ser­vice com­mu­nity that got mo­bi­lized,” he said. “There are not a lot of states that have all three of those things.” In a 2016 re­port, Ed­u­ca­tionSu­perHigh­way said just five states could boast uni­ver­sal broad­band ac­cess in their schools un­der a fed­eral stan­dard of 100 kilo­bits per sec­ond per stu­dent. 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.

As of Thurs­day, Arkansas boasted con­nec­tions of 200 kilo­bits per sec­ond per stu­dent — dou­ble the na­tional stan­dard — on all fiber-op­tic ca­bles. The fiber-op­tic lines and net­work equip­ment pur­chased by the state can han­dle 1,000 kilo­bits per sec­ond per stu­dent with­out re­place­ment. Of the other states with uni­ver­sal con­nec­tiv­ity for their schools, none has a lower rank­ing for its over­all pop­u­la­tion. Arkansas is No. 49 in In­ter­net ac­cess for its res­i­dents, ac­cord­ing to U.S. News and World Re­port. In Malvern, Tim Ho­licer, su­per­in­ten­dent of the Glen Rose School Dis­trict, said its old In­ter­net con­nec­tion had been a prob­lem de­spite its prox­im­ity to ur­ban ar­eas like Lit­tle Rock.

“Ed­u­ca­tors have al­ways used what they had to teach what needed to be taught re­gard­less of the lack of ma­te­ri­als — and that does in­clude band­width. Teach­ers are go­ing to get the job done,” he said. “How­ever, hav­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate amount of band­width al­lows us to do the job more ef­fec­tively and in­cor­po­rate tech­nol­ogy needed for our stu­dents’ fu­ture.”

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. It paid about $13 mil­lion a year for the old, much slower net­work pro­vided by the state.

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

The old Arkansas net­work cost $286 per megabit, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 Ed­u­ca­tionSu­perHigh­way study. How­ever, schools pur­chased roughly 95 per­cent of their band­width from the pri­vate mar­ket. That cost about an­other $11.30 per megabit. Ed­u­ca­tors and pub­lic of­fi­cials had known for years that the old net­work — es­tab­lished in the early 1990s — was in­ad­e­quate. How­ever, fig­ur­ing out a plan to up­date it proved con­tentious.

“If you have fol­lowed the need to bring high-speed broad­band con­nec­tiv­ity to the K-12 school sys­tems here in Arkansas, you know what a wind­ing road this has been,” said Yes­sica Jones, di­rec­tor of the state De­part­ment of In­for­ma­tion Sys­tems.

In 2014, then-Gov. Mike Beebe urged law­mak­ers to change a law that pro­hib­ited school dis­tricts from us­ing the pub­lic net­work that sup­plies high-speed ac­cess to pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.

The rec­om­men­da­tion came as the need for en­hanced broad­band ca­pa­bil­i­ties at school dis­tricts had ramped up. The Leg­is­la­ture man­dated through Act 1280 of 2013 that ev­ery dis­trict of­fer at least one on­line class. How­ever, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies ar­gued that al­low­ing the school dis­tricts to con­nect to the pub­lic net­work would take away their pri­vate cus­tomers — the school dis­tricts — and force the com­pa­nies that own the ca­ble to pro­vide ser­vice to the schools through the state rental price — es­sen­tially putting the com­pa­nies in di­rect com­pe­ti­tion with the state.

They said the pub­lic net­work also would be pro­hib­i­tively costly. Law­mak­ers never lifted the ban on con­nect­ing to the pub­lic univer­sity net­work.

So, in December 2014, the state De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion asked broad­band com­pa­nies to bid to pro­vide ac­cess to schools in re­gions of the state.

That was a move that took Mar­well by sur­prise. He was ad­vis­ing the state at the time.

“Re­gional bid­ding ex­cludes smaller providers who are too small to bid on an en­tire re­gion but could have pro­vided the ser­vice for a smaller ge­o­graphic area maybe at a lower cost,” he said at the time. “The state said [the re­gional ap­proach] is the only way they can en­sure all of the dis­tricts get ser­vice … but we don’t ac­tu­ally be­lieve that.”

The De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion’s re­quest for bids was scrapped when Hutchin­son en­tered of­fice in Jan­uary 2015. The De­part­ment of In­for­ma­tion Sys­tems put out a new re­quest on Feb. 9, 2015, that did not con­tain the re­gional re­quire­ment.

It took two rounds of bid­ding to se­cure a con­nec­tion for al­most ev­ery school dis­trict. Only two school dis­tricts didn’t re­ceive a bid from a ser­vice provider — the Cleve­land County and Wood­lawn school dis­tricts — both based in Ri­son, roughly 25 miles south­west of Pine Bluff.

TDS Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions — then the lo­cal In­ter­net ser­vice provider — did not ini­tially bid to do the work. How­ever, the com­pany sold its Cleve­land County op­er­a­tions to ARK-O, a di­vi­sion of SGO Broad­band based in Seneca, Mo. The de­part­ment was able to work with the new own­ers and Wind­stream, which main­tains a hub for other school con­nec­tions in Fordyce.

In an in­ter­view, Hutchin­son said he had to per­suade the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion not to pull the plug on fed­eral E-Rate fund­ing.

“We had shifted di­rec­tion a cou­ple times in Arkansas,” he said. “They were con­cerned that we were not spend­ing the money wisely — wast­ing money — and we didn’t have a good plan to get it done. They were frus­trated with us.”

Jerry Jones, chief ethics of­fi­cer at Acx­iom Corp. and the for­mer chair­man of Faster Arkansas — a com­mit­tee es­tab­lished by Beebe to study school con­nec­tiv­ity — said he be­lieves that the pub­lic-net­work op­tion would have been cheaper.

How­ever, “the ob­jec­tive of ev­ery­one who was work­ing on this was to ob­tain high-speed broad­band ac­cess for the ben­e­fit of ev­ery pub­lic school stu­dent and teacher in Arkansas. That was achieved. And we’re very, very pleased with that,” he said.

“It was an ini­tia­tive of Gov. Beebe to get it started with Faster Arkansas. I was very pleased that Gov. Hutchin­son picked up the is­sue and drove it to com­ple­tion.”

Of the pub­lic net­work, Mar­well of Ed­u­ca­tionSu­perHigh­way said he be­lieves that it would have been more ex­pen­sive than con­tract­ing with pri­vate telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions providers. Hutchin­son, who noted he went to a ru­ral school, paused when asked how hav­ing ac­cess to broad­band would have af­fected his ed­u­ca­tion.

“I’m not sure that’s even ex­pli­ca­ble,” he said.

“Tech­nol­ogy has not changed ed­u­ca­tion in the sense of ed­u­ca­tion is a teacher with knowl­edge im­part­ing in­for­ma­tion to stu­dents. That con­cept is al­ways the same. But you’ve got to ad­just to the new tools and the way kids learn to­day, and kids learn through tech­nol­ogy. They learn ev­ery day. Ed­u­ca­tion is con­tin­u­ous. It doesn’t stop in the class­room. They go home, and they con­tinue to look at the In­ter­net.”

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