- Associated Press - Saturday, February 8, 2014

PHOENIX (AP) - Gov. Jan Brewer said she wants to offset the digital divide among Arizona schools when it comes to Internet access.

But Brewer is proposing to pay for upgrades to the state’s broadband infrastructure by charging school districts and charter schools $15 per child over a six-year period, The Arizona Republic reports (http://bit.ly/1fNQs3n).

That proposal has drawn fire from some educators and politicians, who argue it would only benefit private companies and homeowners.

According to Brewer’s plan, which would cost the state and private entities $350 million in upgrades, schools would foot the bill for internal updates needed to access faster broadband. They would also have to pay for Internet access.

State staffers have been promoting the plan as a crucial to giving all students a competitive advantage and critical resources.

State Budget Director John Arnold said Arizona is 20 years behind other states, with three schools still using dial-up modems to get onto the Internet. According to the governor’s office, 11 percent of the state’s schools can only get Internet at 100 megabites per second. The median data rate for the schools is 12 megabites per second.

“It is detrimental to economic development and education in rural Arizona as our schools become more heavily dependent on the Internet,” Arnold said.

Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said the state should not be shifting any financial burden to schools.

“We need to stop looking at it as something that will only benefit schools,” Essigs said. “This will be an information highway. When the freeway expanded from Phoenix to Flagstaff, Camp Verde wasn’t sent the bill.”

Some rural schools simply can’t afford the necessary equipment, critics said. Schools in communities that already have quick Internet access still have to pay the $15-per-student fee.

Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, contended that all school districts will be faced with an unfair burden.

Broadband “is a basic responsibility of state government, not of individual school districts,” Ogle said.

If approved by lawmakers as part of the 2015 fiscal budget, the expansion will mean a state Internet service provider contract will be up for grabs. The installation company would own the broadband, however. Private companies would pay half of the $350 million. Student fees would account for one-fourth. The state would mandate federal funds for the rest.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration ranked Arizona as 42nd in the nation for broadband speed in a 2012 survey. A testing company called Ookla ranked the state 13th nationally for current broadband download speed in January.

___

Story Continues →