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Panel Wants Second Special Session On Broadband Access In Schools

LITTLE ROCK — Members of a committee that has been studying broadband in Arkansas said Thursday they hope Gov. Mike Beebe will call a second special session this year to address expanding broadband access in public schools.

In a conference call with reporters, members of FASTER Arkansas, which stands for Fast Access for Students, Teachers and Economic Results, said that although broadband was not included in Beebe’s call this week for a special session starting Monday, they believe the issue merits calling another special session this year.

The committee wants the Legislature to change the law to allow school districts to use the existing broadband network that provides high-speed Internet access to public colleges and universities in the state. Beebe has said he supports making the change but declined to add the issue to his call for the special session, which is to focus on teacher insurance, prison overcrowding and possibly the state lottery.

“The governor’s office has indicated the issue was not quite ripe for the confines of a short special session,” said Jerry Jones of Acxiom, chairman of FASTER Arkansas. “We would hope that as we move forward through year we’re able to build up overwhelming support for this initiative and we’re hopeful that the governor would call a special session later on during the year to address this needed change in the law.”

Specifically, the committee wants the Legislature to change Act 1050 of 2011, which prohibits K-12 schools from accessing the Arkansas Research Education Optical Network, or ARE-ON. Members said they do not favor mandating that districts use the network but they believe it should be an option.

Kendall Gibbons of Arvest Bank said it is difficult to estimates costs because Act 1050 prevents seeking bids, but he said “we’ve got some very high-quality assumptions that we’re going to make that we haven’t made public yet, but we’ll be doing that in the near future … mid-July, perhaps.”

Jordan Johnson, spokesman for the Arkansas Broadband Coalition for Kids, which represents private service providers, said Thursday that FASTER Arkansas is relying on a study from April that contained inaccurate data and that too many questions remain unanswered about its proposal.

“It all boils down to cost, and we have yet to see any costs, any estimates — and then not only the cost of doing it, the cost to maintaining it, the cost to sustain (an expanded) network like that,” he said.

He also questioned whether there is a need to expand ARE-ON to include K-12 schools.

“The providers have been building up a network that Arkansas can be very proud of in terms of the infrastructure that’s been built out and invested in throughout Arkansas over the past 20 years,” he said.

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