As business and political leaders in Arkansas begin work on how to improve broadband access to public schools in the state, one of the leading cable and Internet providers in the state is rolling out a program to reach low-income K-12 students.

Cox Communications announced Thursday (July 25) a partnership with Connect2Compete designed to increase Internet access and provide low-cost computers to families who qualify for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program. Connect2Compete is a not-for-profit initiative that works nationwide to provide “affordable high-speed Internet, low-cost computers and free digital literacy training to families nationwide.”

Eligible families may obtain Cox high-speed Internet for a deeply discounted price of $9.95 a month for two years, along with a free cable modem rental, free installation, and no deposit or contract.

“Cox has a long history of supporting broadband adoption programs across the country, and doing so in a way that connects the most vulnerable members of our society – our children – so they can compete and have a greater chance of success in the digital world that awaits them,” Kim Rowell, Cox Arkansas market leader and vice president of field services, said in a statement.

The Cox eligibility requirements include:
• Families have at least one child receiving free lunch through the national school lunch program;
• Must live in a Cox service area;
• Have not subscribed to Cox Internet service in the past 90 days;
• Do not have any outstanding past due payments to Cox.

Kelly Zega, a spokeswoman for Cox, said the normal charge for basic Internet speed is $34.99 for an introductory offer, then up to $42.99 after several months. Based on those fees, a qualifying family would receive an almost 77% discount on an Internet access charge.

The primary Arkansas markets for Cox are the Northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith metro areas and the Harrison-Berryville area in north central Arkansas. Zega said in the school districts in those markets there are an estimated 48,294 children who qualify for free or reduced lunches. Because there may be several qualifying children per household, the number of eligible households will likely be fewer, Zega explained.

“But even if a portion of those children can gain access through what we are offering, that could be a game changer,” Zega said. “And I’d like to add that it doesn’t just help them (children). This is equally critical for the parents so they can have that access … to monitor their (child’s) progress at school.”

The “game changer” element is what Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has recently asked education and business leaders to address with respect to improved Internet access at Arkansas’ public schools.

Earlier this month, Beebe convened two working groups – Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results (FASTER) and the Quality Digital Learning Study (QDLS) committee – to find ways to boost broadband access to nearly 460,000 Arkansas K-12 students.

According to the Arkansas Department of Information Services (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. Business leaders with leading Internet Service Providers (ISPs) contend the situation is not nearly as negative as the DIS report projected.

Without the necessary bandwidth, Arkansas public schools could be in jeopardy of failing to meet forthcoming Common Core testing standards and perhaps, more importantly, students and teachers could miss out on new digital academic opportunities that are redefining the education delivery system.

Zega told The City Wire that the Connect2Compete partnership announcement was not driven by Beebe’s push, but could help in the effort.

“It is an interesting coincidence, but this has been a program that has been in the works for a long while,” Zega said. “We are happy that a solution is coming into play at the same time a bright light is now on this issue in Arkansas.”

Zega also said some school administrators are pleased with the plan because it may encourage participation among qualifying families who have chosen to not sign up for the free or reduced school lunches. For parents who may simply be too embarrassed to sign up, the possibility of inexpensive Internet access may overcome that anxiety, Zega said.

“If that encourages them to sign up, and they get that (Internet) access to their home, then that helps those kids and it also helps the school,” Zega said.

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