The $65 million initiative for improved broadband service in Arkansas schools kicked off at a small ceremony held Wednesday afternoon at the Fort Smith School District's Rogers Center.
"This is a big day for Arkansas," Arkansas Department of Information Systems Director Mark Myers said. "That equipment is expensive and that connection is expensive, but it's what the students of Arkansas deserve."
The upgraded Arkansas Public School Computer Network offers speeds of 200 Kbps versus the current statewide average of 5 Kbps, Myers said. More than 230 other school districts and charter schools are in line for the upgrade.
"If you look at a map of Arkansas, you can tell where our gaps were," Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key said. "If you look especially in western Arkansas between here and Texarkana, a lot of school districts just didn't have the access to broadband they needed. This is going to give those students an opportunity they've not had before."
The cost for improved service, $65 million over five years, is comparable to what the state has spent in the past, Key said.
Superintendent Benny Gooden called the initiative a great day for not only Fort Smith schools, but the entire state.
"If our students today are going to compete with students all over the world, they're going to have to have these kinds of skills, and we're going to have to have the speed," he said. "That's what this network does."
Today's students, Gooden said, "are in an age of online testing."
"Regardless of which test you use, they're all going to be online," he said. "That's the world we live in."
He noted that his district, which has more than 14,000 students, "has been working on technology for a long time."
"We've limped along, as it were, because we didn't go at lightning speed," he said. "But we have built a pretty robust network. We have over 13,000 one-to-one devices that are in the hands of our students throughout the district. This year we had three of our schools that were 24/7 digital, which meant the kids took the computers home. That was a pilot, and we plan to expand that in the future."
Two primary factors led to Fort Smith being chosen as the first to receive the upgrade, Myers said.
"One, Fort Smith had a contract that was expiring and we could step in and fill that void," Myers said. "Two, Cox (Communications) was already a provider here."
©2015 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.