Today, at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees held at Arkadelphia High School, a study was released that sets up a showdown between public education advocates and internet service providers. The report was the result of the Quality Digital Learning Study (QDLS) Committee, a task force of legislators, education officials and business leaders that was established by the legislature in 2013 for the express purpose of developing a plan to deliver high speed internet to K-12 schools. Dr. Ed Franklin, the QDLS Chair, called for a public-private partnership that would utilize the existing fiber optic network connecting Arkansas’ public universities, the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network (ARE-ON).
“There are 42 states that have regional optical networks involving universities; 41 of those states use those networks as part of providing internet to K-12,” Franklin said. “We believe that we need to allow ARE-ON to be used as part of the backbone.”
There’s just one problem: It’s currently illegal to do that. Why? Because telecoms fiercely oppose the idea of allowing schools to access ARE-ON rather than buying service from the private sector. In 2011, the industry backed a piece of legislation that prohibits ARE-ON from being accessed by most entities that are not universities or hospitals, including K-12 schools. An industry group called the Arkansas Broadband Coalition for Kids was on hand at today’s meeting to dispute the study’s findings; the coalition includes the state’s largest internet providers, among them Cox, AT&T and Windstream.
Jordan Johnson, a spokesman for the coalition, said the QDLS report is based on flawed data that overstates the broadband deficit in Arkansas schools. The coalition disputes the assertion that Arkansas is the only state that does not utilize an existing university-based network for K-12, and it says the QDLS report does not consider cost in its analysis. (The report, which is occasionally a bit snippy as far as official state government documents go, offers a response: Providers have balked at providing the state with proprietary information about their infrastructure that would allow for a more accurate diagnosis of the bandwidth deficit and cost estimates to remedy it.) Johnson said that the 2011 bill sailed through the General Assembly and was signed by the governor without controversy. Indeed, it seems to have flown under the radar, having passed through the Insurance and Commerce Committee rather than Education.
“Remind me of the rationale as to excluding ARE-ON,” asked Sen. Linda Chsterfield (D-Little Rock). “What was the argument? I don’t remember [the bill] being controversial.” No member of the committee seemed able or willing to respond. However, towards the end of the meeting, Len Pitcock, a former Executive Director of the Arkansas Cable Telecommunications Association, gave something of an answer.
“We made business decisions based on the fact that we would not have government competing with us, so that was the rationale back in 2011,” he said. “Our fear was that we would be standing here having this discussion — and unfortunately, here we are.” Pitcock was a member of the QDLS committee as well, but disagrees with the recommendations of the final report.
Providers have invested billions of dollars in building internet infrastructure in Arkansas, and they worry about that investment facing competition from the public sector. They want to sell broadband to schools on their own terms. Even though much of the fiber constituting ARE-ON is itself leased from private providers, allowing schools to access publically-funded infrastructure would represent lost market share for the telecoms. (From another perspective, it would also challenge the tacit monopolies many companies enjoy in rural areas.) But while providers are eager to claim schools as customers, the cost of extending fiber optic cable to remote districts is prohibitively expensive, which is part of why many school districts still lack fast internet. Privately, advocates from the public education world — both inside state government and without — express great frustration that providers are, in their view, standing in the way of better connected schools.
What differentiates this public-versus-private fight from others is that even the most government-averse, libertarian-leaning member of the General Assembly has a school district or two to consider back home. Arkansas schools are in dire need of better internet. We lag behind the rest of the nation when it comes to internet speeds, and superintendents are vocal about needing broadband access. Still, not every legislator bought the argument that schools are being stiffed. Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma) has spent her career working in public schools (she graduated from Arkadelphia High School herself) and questioned whether districts are simply not taking advantage of existing resources.
“I’m hearing from my school district that their providers have made access to broadband available,” said Douglas. “They’re just not willing to pay. It’s not a priority. You know, it could be that they want to put astroturf on their football field.”
Sen. Chesterfield, who is also a former educator, responded. “Every area of the state is different,” she said. “There is no connectivity in many areas of the state, not because of decisions made by the school district but because it just is not available.”
Most legislators seem hesitant to tackle this fraught issue head on without more information. Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) and Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) asked for private providers to prepare their own report for a future committee meeting that would include a cost estimate of meeting school broadband deficiencies statewide.
Prior to the committee meeting, legislators and other guests were given a tour of the technology and engineering facilities at Arkadelphia High by a group of preternaturally well-spoken students (highlights included professional-looking websites designed for local businesses by sophomores in the EAST lab and elephant-shaped pencil holders fabricated with a 3-D printer). The kids were overflowing with enthusiasm to show off their experiments in technology and design. Arkadelphia administrators meant the tour to be a reminder of the need to ensure every school has access to such resources; it was effective. With every passing year, a school without high-speed internet seems more and more anachronistic. Unfortunately, in 2014 there are still plenty of Arkansas campuses in that position.