Arkansas public schools should be allowed to connect to a statewide fiber optics system currently used by universities and medical providers, and the state should centrally manage network support services to save costs and increase scale, according to a report to be released on Tuesday.

The report was produced by the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee, which includes education policymakers, legislators and telecommunications providers. The Arkansas Department of Education convened the committee in June 2013 after legislators directed the department to develop a plan for broadband access as part of the Digital Learning Act of 2013.

The report recommends that school districts connect to the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network, a not-for-profit consortium of the state’s degree-granting institutions that also serves healthcare institutions. ARE-ON is currently off-limits to schools because Act 1050 of 2011 prohibits state and municipal entities from providing voice, data, broadband, video and wireless services – the exceptions being emergency services, law enforcement, higher education, and healthcare providers.

ARE-ON is the only one of 42 fiber optic networks nationwide connecting to Internet2 that does not serve K-12 schools. Internet2 is a consortium serving academia, researchers, industry and government. According to the report, ARE-ON currently has 380 gigabits of unused bandwidth.

The report recommends that private telecommunications service providers extend services from ARE-ON to K-12 schools.

“This existing state resource should be extended to school district hubs … using leased private provider, fiber-optic lines,” it states. “This preserves provider revenue streams and minimizes the need for each of the state‘s 258 school districts to lease, purchase or maintain redundant filtering and firewall equipment and maximizes access to rich educational curriculum and content.”

The report recommends centralized management of statewide network support services, including network construction. Buying services in bulk instead of through individual school districts would reduce costs and increase scalability, allowing districts to have higher speeds during peak periods such as statewide testing, the report states. Local districts would be responsible for networks connecting their own buildings.

The report will be reviewed during a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees in Arkadelphia. Talk Business obtained an advanced copy of the report.

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The report does not provide cost estimates or identify a funding mechanism. That’s one of three reasons that the telecommunications industry could not agree to the recommendations, according to a statement included in the report. The industry also said the issue has not been sufficiently analyzed and that the recommendations conflict with state law.

The need to expand broadband access gained urgency when it came to light that many schools in Arkansas lack enough broadband access to administer online tests as part of the Common Core State Standards. Educators have said the more important issue is that schools cannot take full advantage of the internet for instructional purposes. Arkansas received a “D” for digital learning opportunities in the 2013 “Digital Learning Now” report from the Foundation for Excellence in Education. It ranked 50th as a state for broadband access, according to TechNet’s 2012 Broadband Index.

Arkansas has invested almost $160 million in vendor costs since 1992 on the Arkansas Public School Computer Network (APSCN), the report states. That network, which many school districts supplement using private providers, provides a bandwidth of five kilobits per second per student.

That’s far below recommendations of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), whose minimum recommended bandwidth is 100 megabits per second per 1,000 students and staff for 2014-15 and one gigabit per second per 1,000 students and staff for 2017-18. The report sets the SETDA recommendations as a target for Arkansas schools.

The report notes the differing levels of broadband availability for school districts. A 2013 survey by the Arkansas Department of Education found that the broadband cost of a megabit ranged from a low of $1.20 to a high of $280.

At the same time the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee was formed, Gov. Mike Beebe asked a group of business leaders to form FASTER Arkansas (Fast Access for Students, Teachers, and Economic Results) to address the issue from a business perspective. A FASTER subgroup, the Engineering/Infrastructure Task Force, provided network engineering expertise to both committees.

UPDATE: A group known as Arkansas Broadband Coalition for Kids has released a statement on Monday (May 5) regarding the working group study. The coalition is represented by the Arkansas Cable Telecommunications Association, Arkansas Telephone Association, AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, Cox Communications and Windstream to name a few.

“We are encouraged by the great strides made recently that have boosted Arkansas’s national ranking up 28 spots. And although we all agree that the continued deployment of broadband infrastructure will provide Arkansas students with access to valuable educational resources and tools to compete in an increasingly competitive global environment, we cannot agree with the findings outlined in this report,” said coalition spokesman Jordan Johnson in a letter to House Education Committee chairman Rep. James McLean (D-Batesville).

Johnson outlined three of the group’s major concerns:

We are concerned with the accuracy of data found in the document. Throughout the study period, we requested a timely and accurate assessment of broadband needs. We maintain much of the data used in this report is incorrect.

There are no costs associated with this plan. As the telecommunications industry has invested billions of dollars in our state’s multiple networks, we are well aware of the significant cost involved in addressing broadband needs. Blanket approval of this plan is asking the Arkansas General Assembly for a blank check.

The plan conflicts with existing state law. This concerns us greatly. In 2011,theArkansas General Assembly approved – without a single dissenting vote – legislation to prohibit government entities from competing with private industry with few exceptions. Much of what is found in this report, and in telephone surveys currently being conducted by others, appears to be aimed at laying the groundwork for a repeal of this law. We maintain this continues to be poor public policy.

“Our coalition takes its role in educating the students of Arkansas very seriously. As a result, we have invested in our networks in every county of the state, which has facilitated a rollout of broadband services that has spread further and faster than that of other utilities, including telephone, electricity, and even water,” Johnson said. “We look forward to being part of the solution, and will reinstate our request to the Arkansas Department of Education to work with us in order to identify those areas of the state that truly need help addressing their broadband needs.”

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