Arkansas education officials continued to ask lawmakers to open-up an existing state-owned internet network to public schools. A committee comprised of business leaders, legislators, and education personnel told lawmakers Monday they recommend using the Arkansas Research Education Optical Network, or ARE-ON.
But current law says ARE-ON, which has superior broadband capacity compared to commercial internet, can only be used by state universities and select hospitals. ARE-ON also gives access to the research-only network known as Internet 2.
ARE-ON Director David Merrifield said 42 states have similar networks and Arkansas is the only state not allowing access to public schools.
Speaking after the joint meeting of the Senate and House Education Committees State Senator Johnny Key said the issue is whether to open it up as an option, alongside private providers.
“There was a misconception early on that this was going to be free access. Well, it’s never been about free access. There’s always going to be a cost and the school districts will always be responsible for covering that cost. If they can get what they need now or what they’re going to need five and ten years from now from their local provider no one has ever contemplated replacing that relationship,” said Key.
Key continued, “If you’re happy with the service that you’re getting and you have a provider that’s giving it to you in quality and cost no one is ever saying they would take that away. I understand the providers are concerned with a notion of getting into the private business but we’re talking about a public school. So the other side says, ‘a public school, we use public tax dollars for that, you’re trying to hook up a public entity to a public owned network.’”
A committee formed by the Arkansas Department of Education, and chaired by Axciom Vice President Jerry Jones, says ARE-ON can easily handle accommodating all of Arkansas's over 300 school districts. Jones says by leasing privately owned connection lines to link to ARE-ON, costs would be driven down especially in underserved rural areas.
“The fiber is there. The cost that is being charged to some of the school districts is higher than we think could be paid otherwise,” said Jones.
Several legislators and an industry association for rural telecom companies argued allowing public school schools to use ARE-ON would be unfair competition for private companies. Advocates of expanding access to the program said the competition would drive down costs and benefit public schools.
If the option to use ARE-ON does become available through a change in the law it would still be up to school districts to allocate funds for access.