State business, education and policy leaders are meeting at the Marriott Hotel in Little Rock to discuss strategies for deploying more broadband throughout Arkansas.
The Connecting Arkansas Internet Conference, spearheaded by Connect Arkansas, was held Thursday.
While the room during the opening presentation was full of experts in the field, Gov. Mike Beebe (D) made no pretense that he should be included on the list.
“I’m not going to come in here and talk about broadband to you because I don’t know squat about it,” Beebe told the conference. “What I do know is its significance and importance.”
Education officials are focused on finding ways to boost broadband access to nearly 460,000 Arkansas K-12 students. Beebe has pushed two working groups – Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results (FASTER) and the Quality Digital Learning Study (QDLS) committee – to formulate public-private solutions to upgrade high-speed offerings for schools and communities across the state. The groups have been meeting since earlier this summer.
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 necessary bandwidth, however, 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.
State lawmakers are expected to tackle the issue in next year’s fiscal legislative session.
Beebe told the group that his role was not to find the solution, but to create an environment for solutions to unfold.
“It’s my job as a traffic cop to get the cars going in the right direction,” he said. “I don’t have the solution. I can’t figure out the best way to get this done, but you people can turn Arkansas into the place to make it happen in broadband.”
Beebe encouraged policy makers and business leaders at the conference to push for out-of-the-box solutions similar to how he has promoted new goals for prison sentencing and health care reforms in Arkansas. He said that other state and national leaders have called his office asking about those initiatives.
“I want them to do that on broadband,” Beebe said.
Dianne Smith, founder and CEO of AmericanRural.org, is a former Little Rock Alltel executive now living in Montana. Her company promotes entrepreneurship through technology in rural communities across the country. Internet access is a crucial component of that environment, she said.
“Broadband is a journey, not a destination,” Smith said. “We get so far, but then we wake up and there’s something new in the broadband world.”
She says she hopes the state looks beyond traditional delivery of Internet service, which is dominated by hard-wired cable and fiber optic services.
“Broadband is mobile, too. There’s a big wireless component to it and some of the discussion I’ve heard here is about wired. I’m anxious to see that conversation get expanded to wireless,” Smith added.
As for Arkansas’ ranking for its broadband accessibility and infrastructure, Smith said the state is not alone in the conversation that is the centerpiece of this conference.
“I think Arkansas is where a lot of other states are right now,” she said.