Here’s a little national coverage for an Arkansas policy story so dense it’s not attracted that much public attention even here in-state: the fight over allowing K-12 schools to access the public fiber optic network for colleges and universities, ARE-ON. BloombergView does a good job in summing up the complexities of the public/private arrangements that currently exist, which give broadband providers quite the gravy train when it comes to selling high-speed internet to schools:
Arkansas ranks near the bottom of the list of states when it comes to digital learning and high-speed Internet access in its public schools. The state’s department of education is forced to pay the state’s information technology agency for bandwidth, and the IT agency, in turn, allows private providers to gouge the schools for the obsolete connections the schools are forced to buy. Arkansas schools cannot function using this drip of expensive connectivity, and so almost 90 percent buy an additional fiber line on the side.
The “information technology agency” mentioned is the Department of Information Services (DIS), which runs a copper-wire network connecting Arkansas schools on old, outmoded T1 lines, leased from providers at exorbitant rates.
The Bloomberg author is of the opinion that the state law preventing schools from buying service from ARE-ON should be changed, and that providers (who quietly slipped that law through the session back in 2011) are protecting their profits at the expense of schools. No doubt. But, she does gloss over two points. First, there genuinely is a lack of adequate information available to actually show what’s going on with broadband in Arkansas schools. Providers and districts give wildly different accounts of how much bandwidth is available to schools, for example, or the cost of extending more fiber optic cable to meet the demand guidelines recommended by education experts. It’s what’s allowed private industry to obfuscate many of the facts thus far. Hopefully, with a new report commissioned by the legislature and due by Dec. 1, that uncertainty will dissipate.
Second, I’m sorry, but I still can’t help but wonder about the exact political logic behind some of the very well-funded organized opposition to the broadband providers in the form of FASTERArkansas, the coalition created to advocate for opening up ARE-ON to the public schools. The Walton Family Foundation and business leaders such as Acxiom’s Jerry Jones have voiced loud support for allowing schools to connect to ARE-ON. In doing so, they’re directly butting heads with the interests of the providers, who are themselves among the most powerful business interests in the state (AT&T, Windstream, Cox, etc).
I’m not saying that Jones, or the decision-makers at the WFF, are incapable of acting selflessly in pursuit of an issue they believe will benefit children. It’s entirely possible they’re taking a stand simply because they believe providing better internet to Arkansas schools is worth the battle. Or, for that matter, because better schools are necessary for a better workforce. But the business community in Arkansas is small and densely-connected, and clever executives like Jones don’t just pick an intense policy fight with an entire industry willy-nilly. It’s a little unusual for one set of business leaders to establish itself in public opposition against another unless there are clear competing economic interests at stake.
Whatever the case, the existing data indicates that FASTERArkansas is right. The state has paid for a publicly funded fiber optic network, and it should be opened up to allow K-12 education on board. It will be a surprise if the December report doesn’t back up that conclusion.
Funding for education reporting provided in part by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.