Fort Smith schools first in Arkansas connected to new broadband network

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 247 views 

The Fort Smith School District became the first in the state of Arkansas to acquire a new upgraded, high-speed, fiber-optic broadband network 40 times faster than what other schools throughout the state are capable of achieving.

The announcement was made at a "flip the switch" event on Wednesday (July 15) from the third floor of the Rogers Center on Kinkead Avenue. Dr. Benny Gooden, Fort Smith Schools superintendent, was joined by Johnny Key, commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education (DOE) and Mark Myers, chief technology officer and director for the state's Department of Information Systems (DIS).

The upgrade will now deliver speeds of 200 kilobits per second (Kbps) per user compared to the average of 5 Kbps throughout the rest of the state.

"This is a great day for Fort Smith and a great day for Arkansas schools because it is a step forward in a direction that we have to go to make sure our students are competitive and prepared," said Gooden. "Fort Smith School District has been working on technology for a long time, and we've limped along without lightning speed, but we have built up a pretty robust network."

Gooden credited the Arkansas Public School Computer Network (APSCN) system as well as Cox Communications and Cisco for being "great partners" and making it possible for the district to be chosen first.

For approximately 15 years, the district has utilized these partnerships to build and maintain its own network. That has resulted in significant moves forward prior to the upgrade, Gooden said, noting that "we have over 13,000 one-to-one devices that are in the hands of our students throughout the district." (There are 14,000 students across 26 schools, K-12 in the Fort Smith School District.)

"This year we had three of our schools that were 24/7 digital, which means the kids took computers home," Gooden added. "Those were pilots, and we plan to expand that in the future and we're continuing down that trail. If our students today are going to compete with students all over the world, they're going to have to have these kinds of skills, and we're going to have to have the speed. That's what this network does for us."

Myers commended Fort Smith Schools' technology infrastructure and network, citing it while explaining the reason the city's education system was chosen first out of all 274 K-12 districts.

"It was a confluence of two things," Myers explained. "One, Fort Smith had a contract that was expiring, and we could step in and fill that void. And two, Cox was already the provider here, so we didn't have a lot of new things. We didn't need a big buildout to put it into the ground."

Statewide the new system is a significant investment helped along by the federal E-Rate program, which provides discounts of around 79% on E-Rate eligible expenses to assist schools and libraries in Arkansas and throughout the United States for the purpose of obtaining affordable telecommunications and Internet access.

While Myers said the upgrade was "a lot of money," it is comparable to "what we were paying before," with exponentially better results. The upgrade has cost the state close to $65 million over a five-year period ($12.99 million per year) with an additional one-time investment of $5 million in order to "get the security upgrades we need" for protecting student data, he said.

"I have 12 people whose full time job is to make sure the integrity of the network is there and there is no data loss," Myers said. "Now that doesn't mean we'll never get hacked. There are over 75,000 attempts a day to hack our network."

"That $5 million is crucial," Key added, "in giving parents the comfort of knowing at the state level we're doing our best to keep things secure."

With Wednesday's event, the Fort Smith School District served as the first step toward a full implementation plan that will roll out in around two weeks. Myers told The City Wire that the current fiscal year will see 126 districts completed with the remaining 148 slated for fiscal year 2016.

"We can do about three schools per week. That's pretty much full capacity for what we're capable of managing rollout-wise," Myers said.