Advocates of increasing technology use in education are continuing to push for opening up the state’s broadband network to K-12 public schools.
The Arkansas Research Education Optical Network, or ARE-ON, is a network for universities and research institutions that has superior bandwidth capacity compared to commercial internet. Advocates argue it would provide cheaper service too, particularly to rural school districts. 42 states have similar public networks but a 2011 law made Arkansas the only state prohibiting public school access.
Speaking Friday on the final stop of a week-long statewide media tour for FASTER-Arkansas Corey Biggs with the Arkansas Education Association contended opposition to ARE-ON access is about protecting profit for private internet providers.
“If companies are fighting this effort today that tells you something. It tells you that they think there’s more profit to be made with the way it’s set up today without those options. But that’s money out of your pockets,” said Biggs.
Rural telecom providers argue the public network would be unfair competition and reduce profit margins. They also argue they currently provide affordable and speedy service.
School districts would still have to find funding to connect to and utilize the network even if access to ARE-ON is permitted by the legislature in 2015.
Bill Beavers with Vilonia’s School District said access to ARE-ON as an option alongside private companies would be helpful but districts would still struggle to pay for connection and utilization.
“We have to offset whatever we do with our technology with how it’s going to impact some other program or some other initiative we could be working toward for kids. I really believe we’re going to have to address it from a district level but if it could come from the legislature of course that would be most helpful,” said Beavers.
The prevailing public concern among the majority of legislators appears to be a discomfort with the data on speed and cost provided by both ARE-ON advocates and those opposed to its expansion. Some conservative legislators have also expressed skepticism about increasing the role of technology in learning.
FASTER-Arkansas does not reveal all of its funding but Field Director Elsa Baker said it is funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation.