Editor’s note: This is Part Two of a three-part series.  A video interview appears at the bottom of this post.

How large of a gap do Arkansas public schools have in broadband access?  The gap in bandwidth may be as large as the gap in communication between state educators and Internet service providers, but both are likely to close quickly.

“I think there’s just this huge ravine of communication between the providers in our state and our school people and DIS [Department of Information Services] and us,” says Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell.

Last week, Gov. Mike Beebe (D) convened a group of leaders representing Internet service providers (ISPs), political and educational representatives, and members of the state’s business elite to discuss the subject. The outcome of the conclave was a business-focused group named FASTER (Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results) and an education-centered task force (the Quality Digital Learning Study committee) charged by the legislature to address the issue of Arkansas’ public school bandwidth shortcomings.  (An interview with FASTER chairman Jerry Jones of Acxiom appears at the bottom of this post.)

Education leaders are concerned that the state’s schools are woefully deficient in broadband access. According to DIS, only a handful of the state’s public schools may have a nationally recommended broadband capability of 100 Mbps per 1,000 students and staff. The average Arkansas school district with 1,800 students currently has 40 Mbps of bandwidth and needs at least 140 Mbps more, the department concluded. Industry officials contend the DIS map does not represent the true condition of the state’s broadband capabilities.

The FASTER group has already met a second time and there is a sense among educators and providers that a solution may be fashioned in quick order. The first priority, however, is working with accurate data.

“I think the need for accurate, better data needs to be priority one with all of the task forces right now,” says Cox Communications director of government affairs Len Pitcock, who serves on the QDLS committee. “The data to a large degree that’s being used that indicates there are some problems is based on what the districts are operating on today, not what’s available to them.”

Pitcock is quick to point out that he’s complimentary of the latest efforts and is encouraged by his company and the industry’s goal of being part of the solution. So is AT&T’ Arkansas President Ed Drilling, who serves on the FASTER panel.

“I do think there is a little bit of a disconnect,” Drilling says. “There is a lot more fiber, a lot more bandwidth capability in the state.  It looks like there’s this deficit – and there is in terms of what’s being delivered to the schools – but I don’t think in all cases it’s a matter of lack of infrastructure. I think it’s just a matter of putting the components together and people making sure they let the providers know what speeds that they want and us getting together and communicating directly that this is available and doable.”

Pitcock and Drilling note that while some bandwidth activation will be simple to achieve because the infrastructure is already in place, there will be impediments in certain areas of the state.

Parts of Arkansas have limited broadband access due to low population, which makes it unfeasible for private industry to earn a return on its investment.  Subsidizing service in these areas is likely the only solution for funding bandwidth expansion.

Geography can be a challenge in other areas where mountainous terrain doesn’t allow for lower cost broadband deployment and it can be expensive to lay fiber in the ground.

Arcane restrictions on dedicated broadband funding sources also can limit the number of competitors in a region of the state or curtail the list of Internet providers capable of accessing monies.

“If you’re talking about taking last mile broadband to Snowball, Arkansas or to Deer, Ark. especially if you’re going to use government funds, it seems like there ought to be a competitive element to that as opposed to just defaulting to the incumbent phone company to have exclusive access to those monies,” Pitcock noted.

Drilling says that once a broadband map is updated to reflect Internet service providers’ capabilities – which he feels will be done rapidly – the debate will shift to how to get schools what they need and what the price tag might be from private industry, public schools and possibly the state.

“I think it’s a good opportunity for us to look at this from a comprehensive standpoint and coming up with something other than a piecemeal or band aid approach,” he said. “We can come up with some good long-term solutions – and mid-term and short-term solutions – to help the kids in this state.”

Pitcock agrees.

“One home, one school without access is one too many, but at the same time I think we also have to recognize that there have been billions of dollars invested – most of it private capital – to get it out to the overwhelming majority of Arkansans today.”

A federal government program known as E-rate 2.0 may offer a funding solution.  The Federal Communications Commission program subsidizes school and library phone and Internet service by as much as 90% of costs.

THE DRIVER

Education Commissioner Kimbrell says that meeting testing requirements for new Common Core standards is part of what’s driving the bandwidth debate, but the problem extends far beyond this one element.

“It is true that’s what’s brought it to the forefront because we have some timelines, but what really has happened over the last four years, and before that, is a lot of conversations about how we use today’s technology – knowing that tomorrow’s technology will be upon us in no time – to use innovative tools of today with our students. How do we get those tools accessible to our teachers, so they can use them effectively to communicate with today’s learners?” Kimbrell said.

He is hoping for a private-public partnership that will provide 100% broadband coverage at the levels needed to the state’s school children. If the private sector can’t cover its costs in certain areas, Kimbrell says alternatives, such as tying on to higher education’s ARE-ON network, should be considered.

He understands that all of this effort may have a steep price tag. Some have lowballed the cost at $17 million, while others have estimated it as high as $765 million.

“Our first priority and our goal is to work out a private-public partnership in which we’re providing adequate bandwidth to every school, and private industry is not losing out because of it and our public schools and our students are not losing out because of pricing. We want to work out a situation that’s a win-win for everybody,” Kimbrell said.

He’s hoping that all of the working groups can complete their studies by December of this year in order to present the findings to the Governor and Arkansas General Assembly before next year’s legislative fiscal session.

Kimbrell also said that the investments he hopes to see in broadband could be transformative for the state’s education system. He doesn’t see the payoff from bandwidth expansion taking a generation to appear in better educated kids; he thinks the results will be immediate.

“I think in reality we could get there really, really quick,” he said.

Jerry Jones, chairman of the governor’s FASTER task force was a guest on this week’s Talk Business TV program. You can view his interview below.

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Roby Brock
Roby Brock is the Editor-in-Chief and Host of Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached by e-mail at Roby@TalkBusiness.net. Follow him on Twitter: @RobyBrock.