A long-awaited report released today by the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway (ESH) delivered recommendations for boosting broadband connectivity in Arkansas schools, an ongoing debate that’s pitted internet service providers (such as AT&T, Windstream and Cox) against education advocates, Gov. Mike Beebe and a Walton-backed group called FASTER Arkansas.
Its conclusions largely support the arguments of the latter side. Ultimately, it says, “connecting districts to an aggregated statewide network for Internet access is likely to be the most effective means for Arkansas to meet … [federal] goals within its existing budget.” More than likely, that means ARE-ON, the state-run fiber optic network for universities. Evan Marwell, CEO of the nonprofit, said in an email, “we believe that ARE-ON should be allowed to compete for the statewide network but also that private providers may end up being the best solution for this network.”
A law passed quietly with backing from the private providers several years ago prohibits K-12 schools from using ARE-ON, even though the network has slack connectivity that could be used. FASTER Arkansas and its allies have been pushing to repeal that law, and today’s report gives them further ammunition.
In the short term, says the report, the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) needs to stop buying Internet service from the Department of Information Systems (DIS), the state technology agency that a recent governmental audit has revealed is troubled by financial problems. The APSCN network that DIS operates for the benefit of public schools uses copper wire, providing subpar connection speeds at a jacked up price.
APSCN is insufficient for the needs of a school in 2014, so most districts also buy Internet connectivity from a private provider (just like a household or business does). The ESH report shows that the rates charged by DIS are out of whack with the market:
Unfortunately, the ADE’s current investment in the Arkansas Public School Computer Network (APSCN) is doing little to meet the needs of Arkansas’ public school students. While 58% of Arkansas districts meet the current ConnectED 100 kbps/student target (versus 37% nationally), EducationSuperHighway’s analysis shows that this is due primarily to the fiber-based Internet access purchases that 90% of districts make on their own. … direct school district Internet access purchases account for 95% of the broadband available in Arkansas K-12 schools while the average price per Mbps ($13) is 95% less than ADE’s $286/Mbps APSCN contract. This suggests that ADE can significantly increase the Internet access it provides to districts by more effectively utilizing its $11 million annual investment.
ESH recommends that ADE stop spending money on an outdated DIS-administered system and issue an RFP to purchase connectivity through private providers instead.
On the face of it at least, that sounds like it will make the providers happy. They won’t be as pleased with the long-term recommendations to move towards an aggregated statewide network, since it means they’d likely be competing with ARE-ON in that instance.
Here’s the full report: