Last week, a panel of civic leaders, educators and public officials completed a study and sent it to the governor with their recommendations for efficiently bringing enhanced broadband to rural schools.
The policy makers made four major recommendations. First, all schools should be connected to a much-improved fiber optic network. Secondly, management of the statewide network should be centralized. Third, schools should have minimum broadband capability of 100 megabits per second for each 1,000 students.
Finally, the panel recommended that a private-public partnership be charged with accomplishing the goal of improved Internet access in rural Arkansas.
Stubborn issues remain to be resolved. One is financing; another is getting an accurate and up-to-date inventory of which schools in which areas of the state are in most need of greater bandwidth.
Every semester brings a greater demand for distance learning, video streaming, digital technology and faster telecommunications. For example, the legislature approved Act 1280 of 2013 to require all high schools, including charter schools, to provide at least one digital learning class to ninth graders beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. Also, more standardized tests, such as the Common core, are being conducted and scored using information technology. Increasingly, teacher evaluations and report cards require access to Internet bandwidth.
The state is getting bids from Internet service providers, which should be submitted by the end of the year. Once the bids are in, policy makers will begin discussing the potential costs of expanding broadband capabilities.
Arkansas institutions of higher education and hospitals already use a high-speed fiber optic network known as the Arkansas Research Education Optical Network. There is an ongoing debate over whether public schools should link into that network, and whether doing so would interfere with private investment in telecommunications networks.
Bringing electric power and telephones into isolated areas was a lengthy and expensive process, and at times politically difficult. Providing broadband will be similar.
There are two panels now working on the broadband issue. One has a catchy title but the other doesn’t. There is the Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results (FASTER Arkansas), which is examining the issue from a business perspective. There is also the Quality Digital Learning Study Group (QDLS), created by the legislature earlier this year to expand Internet broadband access for the purpose of improving educational opportunities for children throughout Arkansas.
— Eddie Cheatham is an Arkansas state senator representing Southeast Arkansas.