Editor’s note: This is Part One of a three-part series.

State education leaders are concerned that a supermajority of Arkansas public schools don’t have the broadband capability to meet forthcoming Common Core testing standards and other digital academic opportunities necessary for the future. Business representatives say the situation is not nearly as dire as projected.

Last Wednesday (July 10), 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, which could carry a price tag for upgrades as high as three-quarters of a billion dollars.

“When it became apparent that things weren’t moving fast enough to suit me in the private sector with the proliferation of broadband capabilities, particularly in rural areas, I called everybody together. One of the good things about being Governor is when you send out invitations, they all come,” Beebe said in an exclusive Talk Business interview.

While there is debate about how deficient Arkansas schools may be in positioning themselves for digital learning, there is consensus that the state must improve its efforts.

The 2012 “Digital Learning Now” report from the Foundation for Education Excellence in Education gave Arkansas an “F” for digital learning opportunities. A TechNet Broadband Index listed Arkansas 50th among all states for broadband access in 2012.

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 ISPs contend the situation is not nearly as negative as the DIS report projected, and there are myriad solutions to bring the state’s education system up to speed, literally.

Without bandwidth expansion to schools, however, state officials suggest Arkansas students cannot access Common Core testing requirements scheduled to begin in 2014. Common Core is a voluntary set of educational standards for K-12 students to advance their proficiencies in English language arts and mathematics. The standards are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are better prepared to enter two-year and four-year colleges.

Additionally, more and more course offerings and education materials are requiring Internet access with substantial bandwidth.  For example, the 2013 legislature passed a bill requiring every public school district and public charter school in Arkansas to create a pilot program of at least one digital learning course for students to take.

As other states and countries utilize broadband for distance learning, Arkansas risks falling further behind without action.

TWO WORKING GROUPS
From the Governor’s meeting on July 10, two working groups emerged.

“I charged them with the idea of let’s work together and get this figured out,” Beebe said.

FASTER – which stands for Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results – will be chaired by Acxiom executive Jerry Jones. It has a heavy business influence in its composition.

The group also includes:

  • Jeff Gardner, Windstream CEO
  • Dr. Richard Abernathy, Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators
  • Kendall Gibbons, Arvest Bank VP for Information Technology
  • Dr. Don Bobbitt, University of Arkansas System President
  • U.S. Senator John Boozman (R )
  • U.S. Senator Mark Pryor (D)
  • Ed Drilling, Arkansas AT&T President
  • Morril Harriman, Gov. Beebe’s Chief of Staff
  • Susan Harriman, Arkansas Department of Education Director of Policy
  • Walter Hussman, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher
  • Dan Rahn, UAMS Chancellor
  • Jim Walton, Arvest Bank Chairman and CEO
  • Dr. Charles Welch, Arkansas State University System President
  • Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury, Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation CEO
  • Randy Veach, Arkansas Farm Bureau President
  • Grant Tennille, Arkansas Economic Development Commission Director
  • Kathy Smith, Walton Family Foundation
  • Archie Schaffer, Tyson Foods
  • Dr. David Rainey, Dumas Public Schools Superintendent

The group was tasked by the Governor with bringing back potential solutions to accelerate broadband activation where it exists and finding alternatives in areas that lack infrastructure. A subset of the FASTER group includes ISP representatives – cable, Internet and phone company executives – who are expected to improve on the accuracy of the DIS broadband capability map.

Cost estimates on how significant of an investment might be needed from the public and private sector vary widely. It could cost as little as $17 million or as much as $765 million, according to state education officials. Business leaders are not willing to make any estimates until they review the broadband inventory data. How the bill might be footed will be a point of debate.

Some variables on the costs involve activating bandwidth in areas where fiber has been laid, but is not in use or is not being used to its full capacity. A Federal Communications Commission program called E-rate 2.0 subsidizes school and library phone and Internet service by as much as 90% of costs.

Lawmakers recently passed legislation to add an earmarked fee to phone bills that could generate $22 million annually for broadband to rural areas of the state, although it has restrictions that could be perceived as discouraging competition between ISPs.

Also, all of the state’s higher education facilities and UAMS are connected to a high-speed fiber network known as ARE-ON (Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network). However, a state law passed in 2011 restricts options for K-12 schools from tapping into this system.  The bill prohibits a government entity from providing “directly or indirectly” broadband service. Beebe says he’s aware of the law and sees it as a bargaining chip to encourage the private sector to come to the public school’s aid for K-12 broadband needs.

“There are current restrictions, statutorily – which I understand and I know where it came from,” Beebe said. “So I’m giving the private sector the opportunity to step up and do right and help us solve these problems and invest and that’s the first option. There’s always the option that those restrictions could be removed, you know.”

The second working group tasked with addressing the problem is known as the Quality Digital Learning Study committee. It is working on an educational component to solving the problem. The group, chaired by Dr. Ed Franklin, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Two-year Colleges,  includes:

  • Dr. Richard Abernathy, Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators
  • Dr. John Ahlen, former Arkansas Science & Technology Authority director
  • Claire Bailey, Department of Information Services director
  • Dr. Jay Barth, State Board of Education
  • Elizabeth Bowles, Aristotle Internet President & Chairman
  • Katie Burns, CenturyLink
  • Cody Decker, Arkansas Department of Education IT Director
  • Representative Dan Douglas (R-Bentonville)
  • Adrienne Gardner, Arkansas Science & Technology Authority VP
  • Susan Harriman, Arkansas Department of Education Director of Policy
  • Senator Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home)
  • Dr. Tom Kimbrell, Arkansas Education Commissioner
  • Representative James McLean (D-Batesville)
  • Len Pitcock, Cox Communications

This group is charged with identifying the short-term and long-term infrastructure, broadband and digital learning needs of Arkansas public schools as well as devising methods to establish and maintain sufficient broadband capacity for the digital learning environment of the future.

Both groups are pushing to complete their work before the end of this year in anticipation of the 2014 legislative fiscal session. Lawmakers could carve out budget funding for a solution to ramp up the state’s efforts and it is possible that enabling legislation may have to be considered to address the problem.

NEXT: Business, Education Leaders Speak Up
NEXT: Legislative Leaders Address Concerns

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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.