Arkansas expands high-speed web access to all students

Arkansas expands high-speed web access to all students

(Ark.) After two years of effort, every Arkansas school will provide students with secure, high-speed broadband Internet access beginning this year under a statewide initiative that began in 2015.

Arkansas is now one of just six states to achieve a speed of at least 100 kilobits per second (kbps) per student in all of its school districts, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced last week, noting that the state has actually doubled that figure–and that students will have access to a minimum of 200 kbps per student.

“In 2015, when I issued the directive to connect all our schools, I didn’t know exactly how it would look, but I knew for sure that information systems and the education department would get the job done,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “They did, and the final product looks grand. Not only are we leading the way, we surpassed the federal goals and set a standard for the rest of the nation.”

According to a 2016 report from the Federal Communications Commission, 39 percent of rural Americans lack Internet access speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download/3 Mbps upload–the current speed threshold considered to provide advanced telecommunications capability. Researchers also found that 20 percent lack access even to service at 4 Mbps/1 Mbps. Low-income Americans, as well as those living in U.S. territories or on tribal lands were found to fare just as bad if not worse.

While authors of the study did note that an increasing number of schools have high-speed connections, approximately 41 percent of schools, representing nearly half of students throughout the country, lack the connectivity to meet the FCC’s goal of providing 100 Mbps per 1,000 students.

In 2015, the Arkansas Department of Information Systems and the State Department of Education began developing a network and providing infrastructure to schools to meet the federal internet access target of 100 kbps per student for digital learning, which at the time was only available in 58 percent of districts in the state.

The new Arkansas Public School Computer Network will provide students, teachers and faculty in all of the state’s 293 public schools, charter schools and education-service cooperatives with a highly secure, all-fiber high-speed broadband network that delivers internet speeds 40 times faster than the previous network.

Even in rural schools, the network will provide students with the bandwidth speeds needed to access online courses, conduct research online and participate in Internet-based class projects, such as coding and virtual field trips. It will also allow students to complete online courses required to earn a high school diploma.

Because Arkansas is a rural state, officials worried too many schools faced the digital divide–defined as the gap between students who do and do not have access to high-speed Internet.

“In order to accomplish our vision of transforming Arkansas to lead the nation in student-focused education, our students must have access to high-speed Internet,” State Education Commissioner Johnny Key said in a statement. “The partnership between (the Education Department) and (the Department of Information Systems) has helped make this bandwidth goal a reality for every student in the state. Because of this accomplishment, the learning opportunities for all students are endless.”