University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Broadband Access in Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on April 8, 2015 at 11:49 am

broadband

Today’s blog and policy brief is about Internet connections for K-12 schools in Arkansas. Here at the OEP we use the Internet a lot for communication, research, and to keep up with events throughout the country. Our Internet connection is fast and reliable, invisibly supporting our work.

For many K-12 schools throughout Arkansas, however, Internet connections are slow, unreliable and expensive. Arkansas’ schools need access to improved broadband connectivity. The Digital Learning Act, upcoming computer science curriculum expansion and computer-based assessments depend on quality internet connections for student success. While more Arkansas districts meet the standard for internet connections recommended by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) than the national average (58% of Arkansas districts vs. 37% nationally), this still leaves 230,000 students without adequate access.

Six weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassified the Internet as a public utility, setting the stage for greater competition and access throughout the country. Last month, Arkansas’ Department of Information Services opened bidding for High Bandwidth Transport and Internet, opening the door to the competition for providing broadband access to K-12 schools thoughout the state. Work is scheduled to begin in July, with all K-12 schools having sufficient internet access by June, 2017.

While most of us use the Internet regularly, we don’t necessarily understand the details of how it works, what costs are associated with providing it to schools, and all the implications of specific policies. According to a letter sent to district superintendents, under the new RFP, the state will cover the cost of providing Internet access to district hubs, and school districts would be responsible for the costs associated with connecting individual buildings from those hubs.

The research studies conducted so far (QDLS, ESH and CT&T) provide lots of details about current internet connections in Arkansas districts and costs associated with student access. While it is a complicated issue, it seems to us that Arkansas needs to invest some money in ensuring fast, reliable internet access to its students. Due to the research of broadband, testimonials, and recommendations form the studies conducted, fiber optic Internet seems to be the best way to provide the needed connection to schools and students. Arkansas has a fiber optic network already connecting the state’s colleges, health centers, and emergency centers. This network, called Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network (ARE-ON), is currently off-limits to K-12 schools, but could serve as a backbone for broadband access across the state if the current exclusion in Act 1050 was lifted.

To us here at the OEP, there still seems to be many moving pieces in this process. A thoughtful step forward might be trial implementations in sample districts of varying sizes and locations. The information gained from these trial districts could provide valuable tips to successful statewide implementation of broadband.

Even when broadband access is expanded, challenges lie ahead. First, internet is useless if schools do not have the infrastucture to connect to the state provided district hubs.  Second, students and staff need devices to connect to the Internet. Third, teachers, administrators, and support staff need to be able to make use of fast broadband access and up-to-date devices. In addition, districts will need to revamp their acceptable use policies and ensure that schools have effective firewalls that prevent students from accessing inappropriate content or illegally downloaded media.

Arkansas educators are working hard every day to prepare students for success in college and careers, and schools need fast, consistent Internet connections to support student learning. The Digital Learning Act and computer-based assessments require improved broadband for students to participate. While there will be some significant investment required by the state and local districts as well, connecting all K-12 schools through fiber optic Internet would set Arkansas up to be a leader in available technology and connectivity for K-12 students. Providing fast, consistent Internet connections to all Arkansas students is an investment that can’t wait.

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