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Pryor visits Cabot to talk technology

For some Cabot High School freshmen, the first day of school included a brief lesson on how federal policy affects them in the classroom, a lesson brought by U.S. Senator Mark Pryor and Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

The classroom visit was part of a meeting with school officials to learn how E-rate funding is used by the school district, part of considering the need for affordable Internet access in classrooms. Earlier Monday, Pryor hosted a Senate Field Hearing on telecommunication differences between urban and rural areas.

School officials at the meeting included superintendent Tony Thurman; assistant superintendent Tammy Tucker, technology director Kendall Wells, E-rate administrator Melanie Riordan and Gifted and Talented director Aaron Randolf.

State E-rate coordinator Becky Rains and Mayor Bill Cypert also attended the meeting.

E-rate funding subsidizes telecommunication service for some customers and areas. Funds are supported by the Universal Service Fee that is added to telecommunication bills.

For the Cabot School District, E-rate helps meet the technology budget of about $900,000 annually, which, when adding individual school budgets, can reach up to about $1.5 million, Thurman said.

According to information from the Federal Communications Commission, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 expanded the concept of universal telecommunications service to information technology, and set policies, including E-rate, to aid schools, libraries and rural areas in getting services and technologies at discounted rates.

Universal service, the principle of making communications services available to everyone, was set by the Communications Act of 1934 and is one of the reasons for establishing the FCC.

Thurman said technology needs of the district have grown to needing two directors – Wells to manage the technology infrastructure while BJ Brooks directs instructional technology with applications to the classroom.

Monitoring the district’s technology infrastructure has become a full-time position, and serving the technology needs of the students has become an enormous task, Thurman said.

As of Monday, there are about 10,300 students in 15 schools, served by 492 information access points (AP), and the Academic Center of Excellence (ACE), a charter school, is totally technology-based, Thurman said.

There will be about 300 more APs installed in the two years as the district moves to a 1-to-l ratio of devices to students, Thurman said.

The current bandwidth purchased by the district is expected to meet student needs for about three years, by which time it is anticipated that the district will need three to five times more, Thurman said.

The state provides 100Mb of bandwidth, Thurman said. “We have been very aggressive … in that we went out and bought our own [bandwidth],” because the state provision was not enough, he said.

The purchase was divided between two providers, with 100Mb from Suddenlink and 2,000Mb from Windstream, Thurman said.

Seeking competitive bids for services is required by E-rate, Wells said.

Thurman added that having two providers would reduce the effect of one system being lost.

Schools will need and increasing amount of Internet bandwidth with time, Thurman said. The Common Core curriculum testing is technology-based, more curriculum is available on the Internet, and the number of devices is growing, he said.

Wells said E-rate is an important part of the technology budget. Otherwise, meeting the budget, “Would be a struggle,” he said.

Support from E-rate in purchasing bandwidth reduced the amount spent from 18 percent of the technology budget to 7.5 percent, Thurman said. The annual cost for 2,200Mb of bandwidth is $162,600, with E-Rate paying $94,300 and the district $68,300; the district will also get about $56,000 for phone service this year.

Help for the district was not solely in E-rate funding, Thurman said. Upgrading technology in the district began at least seven years ago, “We used hundreds of thousands of dollars [in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds] for electrical upgrades,” Thurman said. “We would not be where we are today if not for the ARRA money.”

It was not long ago that if too many crockpots were brought for a potluck lunch it would overload a building’s electrical system, Thurman remarked.

Rosenworcel remarked that E-rate has been highly successful in connecting schools to the Internet, “But it is no longer about connections.” FCC is studying “rebooting” E-rate, and making it more focused on capacity, “That is the challenge. That and to reduce the bureaucracy,” she said.

The program may be so complicated that it discourages smaller, rural schools from taking advantage of it, Rosenworcel said.

Thurman recommended changing E-Rate’s priority to increasing bandwidth; including local network equipment for delivering the bandwidth to the classroom; and consider making telephone service a lower priority.

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