A letter from telecommunications providers expressing opposition to connecting K-12 public schools to a statewide fiber optic network drew disapproval from Gov. Mike Beebe, who called parts of the letter “inaccurate.”
Beebe supports allowing schools to connect to the Arkansas Research Education Optical Network, or ARE-ON, which connects Arkansas colleges, universities, health care providers and others to the research-based Internet2 community. Public schools cannot connect to ARE-ON under a provision of Act 1050, which was passed in 2011 with the support of the telecommunications industry.
The recommendation to connect schools to ARE-ON originally came from the Quality Digital Learning Study Committee, created as a result of a 2013 law. Beebe also appointed a group of business leaders now calling itself FASTERArkansas to study the issue. It came to the same conclusion.
In a letter to Beebe dated July 22, Jordan Johnson, spokesperson for Arkansas Broadband Coalition for Kids, wrote that the industry already has laid an adequate broadband infrastructure to reach most public schools, and that private providers shouldn’t be forced to compete against a government entity.
“While the focus of FASTER has been to expand the use of the ARE-ON network for K-12 schools, some have been quick to conclude ARE-ON should be used to serve any and all customers. These developments have caused great concern throughout the business community,” he wrote.
Beebe wrote in emailed comments to Talk Business & Politics that the assertion is “not accurate.”
“It is not our policy to extend ARE-ON to any private entities. We are asking that our K-12 public schools be allowed the option of determining, on a case-by-case basis, if ARE-ON might be a more effective and efficient provider for individual school districts or schools,” Beebe wrote.
Johnson’s letter argued that Act 1050 was “carefully vetted” and that it was “passed in an attempt to ensure public projects undertaken with the influx of federal stimulus monies would not be financially sustained by allowing government to enter the marketplace. This bill passed both chambers without a dissenting vote.”
Beebe took issue with that as well.
“The letter is doubly inaccurate because it says that the Act was ‘thoroughly vetted,'” he wrote. “That is not true. If you look at the history, it was a sneaky amendment that was passed at the last minute without anyone’s knowledge, including the author of the amendment, whom we talked to later.
“The Act may have been vetted, but the amendment that precluded ARE-ON from K-12 was not vetted and was sneaked in at the end of the session without any knowledge or notice to the K-12 education community, and it is one that negatively impacts the children of this state.”
Shown Beebe’s remarks, Johnson responded by saying, “While there are different approaches, we share the governor’s goal of providing Arkansas children, Arkansas schools and Arkansas taxpayers the most robust yet affordable broadband access and service.”
The issue of broadband connectivity is growing in importance. Many schools do not have enough broadband to fulfill online testing requirements associated with the Common Core State Standards. Educators say schools cannot take advantage of educational materials because of inadequate connectivity.
Of the 42 states with networks connected to the Internet2 community, Arkansas is the only one that does not allow participation by K-12 public schools.
Jordan’s group, however, asserts that the states’ systems are different enough that it’s difficult to make a comparison.
No one knows how much connecting all Arkansas schools would cost, though the state has hired a consulting firm to study the issue, and FASTERArkansas has promised to provide cost estimates of its own.