With Arkansas pursuing expanded broadband in its public schools, an FCC commissioner says she wants her agency to be a catalyst for meeting the state’s goals and pushing for greater bandwidth.
“The issue is no longer connection, it’s capacity,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, President Obama’s 2012 appointee to the Federal Communications Commission. “We want to make sure that every school has really high-speed broadband. If we make some changes to the E-Rate program, we can do that.”
Rosenworcel was in Little Rock and Cabot on Monday (Aug. 19) at the request of Sen. Mark Pryor (D), who conducted a field hearing in his capacity as chairman of a Senate Commerce subcommittee on communications, technology and the Internet.
“Arkansas really does serve well as a microcosm for looking at all of these issues,” Pryor said. “We have all of the challenges that you see otherwise. We have very rural, we have poor, we have seniors. It [broadband] is needed in health care and education. We have urban and suburban areas.”
The E-Rate program is a FCC program that pays up to 90% of the costs associated with installing or upgrading Internet access in the nation’s schools and libraries. It is funded primarily from fees collected by phone companies that provide interstate or international telecommunications services.
Rosenworcel said when the program was started in 1996 only 14% of the nation’s public schools were connected to the Internet. Today, more than 95% of them are.
Pryor and Rosenworcel heard from large and small telecom representatives regarding Arkansas’ current state of broadband and its future needs. Large firms such as AT&T, Windstream and Verizon were represented as were smaller firms like Ritter Communications, South Arkansas Telephone Co., and Aristotle, Inc.
Elizabeth Bowles, president of Little Rock-based Aristotle, touted her company’s ability to cheaply and quickly broaden and speed up Internet access through fixed wireless technology.
Bowles said that fixed wireless, as opposed to wireline and fiber solutions, are capable of reliable service and high speeds and can be installed within a week to 30 days depending on proper licensing. She also said that Aristotle only needs 40-120 customers to justify moving into an area.
“Fixed wireless can serve as the last-mile delivery mechanism while fiber is being trenched,” Bowles testified. “And fixed wireless broadband can and should serve as a backup for wireline solutions to ensure that broadband connectivity is not lost.”
Gov. Mike Beebe (D) has convened a task force known as FASTER to study what it will take to achieve broadband speeds of 100 mps per 1,000 students in Arkansas’ public schools.
Jeff Gardner, Windstream CEO and a member of the FASTER group, testified that his firm is already meeting and exceeding that goal in some areas of the state.
“Education institutions are important Windstream customers. For example, we deliver 1 gigabit service to both North Little Rock high schools. Windstream understands the importance of replicating this service elsewhere,” Gardner said.
A second working group, the Quality Digital Learning Study (QDLS) committee, is also working with educators and Internet service providers to find solutions.
The 100 mps threshold may be too low, according to some task force members, who said that 400 mps might need to be the new goal for the task force’s work.
Rosenworcel said that she’s currently fixed on making sure the FCC encourages optimum use of the E-Rate program. She said the Arkansas field hearing reinforced her belief that two primary goals need to be the focus for the agency and policy she guides.
“I’d really like to see us simplify the program. Over time, it’s gotten much more bureaucratic and I’m afraid that the bureaucracy is deterring small and rural schools from participating and applying, and even companies from participating and providing the broadband,” she said.
Secondly, Rosenworcel has a goal for the 2015 school year – just one year away.
“We have to absolutely re-think the program and make sure that capacity is a part of it,” Rosenworcel said. “I want to see 100 megabits to every school per 1,000 students by the 2015 school year. And then I want to see a gigabit to every school per 1,000 students by the end of the decade. I call that ‘dream likely’ and ‘dream big.’”
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