A yearslong project to get high-speed Internet into every school in Arkansas will conclude before summer break ends.
By running fiber-optic cables from the Ozarks to the Delta, and serving all 477,268 students in between, Arkansas will be one of a handful of states that guarantees the service everywhere.
The achievement is the result of a state Department of Information Systems project involving more than 20 telecommunications companies. The project is largely funded by the Federal Communications Commission.
The federal E-Rate program was revamped in 2014 when the FCC increased its budget by $1.5 billion to $3.9 billion annually. Evan Marwell, founder of the California-based EducationSuperHighway, said that led to increased state participation nationwide, but Arkansas started earlier and has improved more than most.
As a result, he said, the state has become a national leader.
"Look, Arkansas took a situation where the state was one of the worst in the nation in terms of effectively using the resources that they have, and they've turned it into one of the best," Marwell said. "We think that the state has done a terrific job to be quite honest."
Marwell's nonprofit -- funded by organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative -- has tracked the national movement to better connect the nation's schools since 2012.
It also advised Arkansas on how to wire the schools in 2014 -- though the state initially ignored some of Marwell's recommendations before rebidding state contracts after Gov. Asa Hutchinson took office in 2015.
Yessica Jones, director of the Department of Information Systems, said just a handful of school connections have yet to be made out of the nearly 300 total. She said they could be connected as soon as this month.
"It's going to be incredible. Now, students are going to be able to stream online videos -- or anything," she said. "If you think about it, everything now is just going online, and the way the kids learn has changed."
At Beebe Elementary School, for example, teachers said in interviews last year that students had visited with a South African penguin hospital, learned from NASA officials, spoken with New Zealanders to understand time zones and conducted a virtual career day with former students from Louisiana to California via their Internet connection.
"It helps Beebe to see that there's a world out there," said Dawn Clevenger, who at the time taught fourth-grade math, social studies and science at Beebe Elementary School.
Hutchinson also is counting on the broadband connections to deliver on a campaign promise to offer computer coding classes in every Arkansas classroom. Many rural schools cannot find teachers for in-person classes, but students can still learn using online classes through Virtual Arkansas. That program is run by a partnership between the state Department of Education and the Arkansas Education Service Cooperatives. The program provides digital courses to public school students in Arkansas.
Marwell said more rural students are getting access to resources that were previously only available in more urban districts.
In 2013, just 30 percent of school districts nationally were meeting the Internet speed goal -- 100 kilobits per second per student -- set by the federal government. Now, 88 percent of school districts are meeting that goal.
Still, in the group's 2016 annual report, just five states boasted 100 percent connectivity under the 100 kbps per student federal standard. Those states are Hawaii, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Carolina and Wyoming.
Of those, only Hawaii and Kentucky are using all fiber-optic cables, which can handle much faster speeds than antiquated copper wiring can.
This year, Arkansas will also boast 200 kbps per student connections -- double the national standard -- on all fiber-optic connections. The fiber-optic lines and network equipment purchased by the state can handle 1,000 kbps per student without replacement.
"I think it's been the combination of catalytic change in the FCC's E-Rate program, significant increases in the affordability of broadband, as well as involvement and leadership by governors across the country," Marwell said of the national improvement.
"Gov. Hutchinson was one of the early ones to take up the cause, but we now have 43 governors across the country who've committed to getting all their schools connected."
Bandwidth on the new Arkansas network costs $3.70 per megabit. Marwell said the national average is $7 per megabit.
The old Arkansas network cost $286 per megabit, according to a 2014 EducationSuperHighway study. However, schools purchased roughly 95 percent of their bandwidth from the private market. That cost about another $11.30 per megabit, said Don McDaniel, enterprise network services director for the Department of Information Systems.
In total, the state will pay about $14 million per year for the new network, with the majority of the cost reimbursed by the federal E-Rate program, McDaniel said. It paid about $13 million a year for the old network.
Schools will no longer purchase broadband access directly from private providers, saving them money and paperwork.
Beyond schools, state officials have long touted the broadband expansion as one way to make it more affordable for providers to expand to rural communities.
Susan Christian, vice president of marketing for Jonesboro-based Ritter Communications, said the company has been able to grow because of its contract. It connected about 75 different school districts, according to state data.
"We have not done any residential overbuilding because of it, but we have grown more business-to-business relationships, not only in new communities, but the existing communities we serve because some of these schools were outside of our traditional territory," Christian said. "As we took fiber to the schools, that opened up new opportunities."
SundayMonday on 07/03/2017