ARE-ON not needed to improve broadband speeds in public schools

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 112 views 

Arkansas public schools can have necessary broadband internet at no extra cost to the state and without connecting to a “backbone” such as ARE-ON, the House and Senate Education Committees were told Wednesday.

Jody Craft, lead project manager for CT&T, an engineering and consulting firm hired to examine public school broadband needs, told legislators that connecting to a backbone such as ARE-ON isn’t cost-effective at this time. ARE ON is the Arkansas Research Education Optical Network, a private network used by universities and hospitals but prohibited by Act 1050 of 2011 from being used by public schools.

Instead, CT&T offered a “no backbone” option where schools simply connect to the internet through internet service providers. Craft reported that internet access costs are falling more rapidly than direct transport costs such as through an ARE-ON backbone.

After the meeting, Craft said, “We’re not against the thought of a backbone. We just don’t feel that’s needed at this time. … It’s not needed, and it’s just an expense that’s not going to help the economics of the situation until the access is dealt with.”

After the meeting, House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said the study showed that repealing the law to make ARE-ON an option isn’t a cost-effective solution. Based on his reading of the room, “there doesn’t seem to be an appetite to pursue that option any longer.”

Craft said the state needs centralized planning and procurement but with “decentralized execution.” A small central body should establish standards and provide leadership, but that could be contracted to private providers. He said while district-level information technology managers had displayed an encouraging level of competence and collaboration, no one at the state’s Department of Information Systems (DIS) seems capable of statewide technology planning and technology expense management.

The issue of broadband connectivity gained greater importance when it became clear that some Arkansas schools lacked the ability to take advantage of online learning tools or to participate in online tests administered as part of the Common Core.

Craft reported that 65% of schools are offering 100 kilobits per second per student, the generally recognized standard for 2015. The remaining schools could be connected within 12 months at a cost of $5.3 million, but with help from federal E-rate discounts, that number falls to $1.1 million. E-rate is the federal program funded by telecommunications fees that reimburses Arkansas schools at about an 80% rate.

That $1.1 million can be covered by reallocating expenditures by the statewide Arkansas Public School Computer Network, managed by DIS, which offers 75% of its connectivity through outdated and expensive copper wiring instead of fiber optics, from which school districts obtain 64 percent of their broadband. APSCN is spending $283 for a megabit of connectivity versus $10 for local school districts.

Meanwhile, 95% of school district requests in 2013 were funded by E-rate, compared to only 33.6% of E-rate requests by DIS. In 2012, only 11.8% of DIS’s E-rate requests were funded. About $8.9 million in potential DIS reimbursements are on hold for various reasons, Craft said.

By reallocating APSCN resources, the state would save $8.52 million. That, along with increased E-rate discounts, would enable schools also to reach the accepted standard of 1 megabit per second per student by 2018 at no extra cost.

Craft emphasized that broadband connectivity is not necessarily a function of location or enrollment. Districts in east Arkansas’ Great Rivers Co-op enjoy the state’s highest connectivity rate, including Hughes, Marvell-Elaine, Brinkley, Clarendon, Palestine-Wheatley, Barton-Lexa and Lee County; along with Arkansas School for the Blind.

CT&T’s assessment of the state’s broadband situation is similar to one by the nonprofit group EducationSuperHighway, which also recently has reported that all Arkansas schools can be brought up to speed using existing resources. EducationSuperhighway said ARE-ON should be one of several options.