Arkansas’ Internet superhighway could be the actual highway

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 266 views 

As the world becomes more digitally connected, expanding broadband access for Arkansans has become an important issue across the state. And in the area of education, broadband access has become an issue of paramount importance.

Act 1280 of the 2013 General Assembly now requires all public school districts in the state to provide digital learning courses during this school year. But access to broadband Internet has been a challenge, according to the Arkansas Education Association.

“Under current law, K-12 schools can only obtain broadband access through contracts that local school districts negotiate with private providers or through the state’s largely outdated APSCN network, which uses lines leased from private providers,” AEA President Brenda Robinson said in an AEA policy statement.

Even with private operators, the prices can sometimes be cost prohibitive, Robinson said, with costs ranging from $1.20 per megabite to as much as $280 per megabite. The average, she said, was $34.

The AEA has asked legislators for access to legally grant schools access to the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network (ARE-ON), which is only available for higher education.

Another option that has been discussed in years past is the use of fiber optic cables in Arkansas highway right of ways.

According to Randy Ort, spokesman for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, the department houses more than 700 miles of fiber optic cable on controlled-access rights of way across the state.

But for anyone assuming access would be simple, he said they should think again. Ort said the only reason the AHTD has fiber optic lines running parallel to interstates and other highways across the state is because it is federally mandated to do so.

“There was the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 that required the states to negotiate with telecommunications providers to allow placement of fiber optic cable on interstate highway rights of way,” he said. “And like I mentioned to you before, prior to that we do allow by permit utilities on state highway right of way, but not on fully-controlled access roads like interstates. But this act required the states to work with those companies to try to accommodate them.”

Ort said between 1997 and 2002, the highway department negotiated deals with Alltel, AT&T, Digital Teleport, Level 3 Communications, MCI/Worldcom and McLoud Communications to install the fiber optic at no cost to the state.

“So we have agreements in place with those entities. The act, I go back to the Telecommunications Act … it allowed each state to determine fair and reasonable compensation for allowing the placement. So there’s not a certain template. State’s were given leeway to do things, you know, however they saw fit,” he explained. “So here in Arkansas, we negotiated for either fiber or equipment to be able to use fiber. And the agreements are in place as long as the fiber optic cable remains on the right of way. So there’s no end to them.”

The way the agreement works is that providers installed the capacity needed and left one or two “dead wires” for the AHTD to use. And while the highway department uses the network to connect its district and county offices, it still has excess capacity.

But any chance of local school districts getting access to the “dead wires” is zero, Ort said, due to the state and federal laws, noting that even if the state updated its laws the federal government under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 still prohibits the state from becoming “a provider” of Internet services.

He also said giving away the access provided in the agreements with the six service providers would actually not be up to the state highway department, either.

“Back to your question of why can’t we provide it to another governmental entity. Well, if there’s a water line on our property, we can’t provide water to somebody else. If there’s a gas line, we can’t provide gas to somebody else. The only thing we can use this cable for is for highway purposes.”

As for whether the AEA will get its desire for a change in the law, there was not a simple yes or no provided by legislators from both parties.

Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, said he had “definite interest in looking at it,” adding that it may require looking at other avenues outside of ARE-ON.

“All schools need broadband access, but not necessarily ARE-ON, but we need to find a way to provide good broadband access across the state. That may be with a public network or private providers.”

Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said the situation was coming to a head over the summer and nearly resulted in a request of Gov. Mike Beebe for a special session of the General Assembly.

“There was talk of the governor calling a special session. But (regarding access to ARE-ON), I have not yet made a decision. But I do know I want to make sure our schools get better broadband access. I think it’s almost criminal they don’t have that access.”

The issue is price and with the highway department unable by federal law to become a provider to the schools and private Internet providers having such a range in price, would the legislature be willing to place limits on what local service providers could charge school districts should ARE-ON not become accessible by statute?

“That’s a tough one,” Files said. “On the one hand, I’d like to say ‘yea, we need to put caps in.’ But on the other hand, there may be extenuating circumstances. There may be only one provider in a community and they may have to spend a lot of money to get it to the school.”

Even though Files does not believe in the government involving itself with private commerce, such as setting rate caps, he said schools should receive “fair and reasonable charges that is in the best interest of the public and is a fair cost to the providers, as well.”

Robinson said cost should not be a factor in providing broadband to school districts required to abide by Act 1280.

“New infrastructure would have to be built in many areas in order to connect our schools with the (ARE-ON) network,” she said. “Those, however, would be one-time costs of which the federal government’s e-rate programs could cover the lion’s share.”

But until the access is available, Robinson said “our state will not be able to fulfill our constitutional obligation of providing an adequate education for our children and the next generation will find themselves on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide.'”