The Education and Information Technology committees received a report this morning from CT&T Inc., which was hired to conduct a comprehensive study of the Internet capacity of Arkansas K-12 schools.
It comes on the heels of another report by the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway (ESH), released a couple of weeks ago, which drew on CT&T’s data but came to somewhat different recommendations about how the state should boost connectivity across the state.
The ESH report recommended building an aggregated statewide network, which may or may not utilize ARE-ON, the fiber optic backbone serving Arkansas’s public colleges and universities. But CT&T says using ARE-ON or a similar statewide backbone is unnecessary. Simply buying access through private providers would be the cheapest and easiest route, according to today’s report.
That conclusion seems to deal a blow to efforts by education activists and some business leaders (including the Waltons) to change a current law which prevents K-12 from connecting to ARE-ON. Incoming Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) said that he believed there was now “little appetite” in the legislature for changing the law.
The report also calls into question the fate of an RFP issued by the Department of Education recently which moves the state in the directly of a statewide aggregated network (and at a faster pace than even ESH recommended). Tony Wood, the current Commissioner of Education, said the RFP would proceed as planned for the time being, as it will provide more pricing information for the state.
The ESH and CT&T reports do agree on one thing: APSCN, the network operated by Department of Information Services for the benefit of the Education Department, has been gouging public schools at indefensibly high rates. CT&T’s report says the state should “take immediate action to cancel the redundant APSCN connections to the districts.”
DIS currently charges the state $11.9 million for those connections, which mostly consist of old copper wires (rather than fiber optics) and which provide only a trickle of bandwidth compared to what schools purchase through private internet providers like AT&T and Windstream.
Not only does APSCN use outmoded technology, Jody Kraft of CT&T told the committee, DIS has been factoring in exorbitant overhead costs when billing the Department of Ed. When everything is accounted for, he said, the effective markup rate that DIS charges for APSCN bandwidth is 35 to 38 percent. (Which leads to the obvious question — what about other state agencies that use DIS connections?) If APSCN were phased out today and schools purchased Internet service only through private providers, the effective savings would be $8.52 million, said Kraft.
He also said that DIS consistently has failed to obtain federal matching funds via E-Rate — a program that gives generous matches to schools and libraries to build Internet capacity — thus leaving millions of dollars on the table.
In 2013, the report states, the feds funded about 34 percent of E-Rate requests made by DIS. Other requests made by Arkansas applicants (including those made by schools on their own, independently of DIS) were funded at a rate of 95 percent.