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Alaska’s rural schools could get a boost in internet speed

Apr 29, 2019

Hollis School is part of Southeast Island School District. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

For the past five years, the state has helped Alaska schools pay for faster internet — up to a point. As technology has advanced, some say it’s time to raise the bar. A pair of bills before the Legislature would do just that.

Alaska faces a digital divide. Within the state, rural areas lag behind the larger cities when it comes to internet access.

That lag has a big impact on students. That’s according to Patience Frederiksen, director of the Alaska Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums, who oversees a program that helps school districts across the state pay for faster internet.

“It really enhances education for students, to have so much more stuff that they can offer through the internet that they can’t have locally, because their towns are so small,” Frederiksen said.

Faster internet means more opportunities for distance learning, online testing, and just surfing the web. In many parts of the state, smoothly-streaming audio and video is a luxury.

Since 2015, the state has made funding available to schools to get their internet up to a baseline speed, or bandwidth, of 10 megabits per second (mbps).

But Frederiksen said as technology has advanced, that baseline increasingly isn’t enough.

“What we see again and again is you put a certain amount of internet into a school or into a library, and they say, ‘Thank you very much.’ And within a few months or a year, they’re saying, ‘But we need more.’ And so it’s a moving target, and it’s a target that just keeps getting bigger and bigger for all of us,” she said.

As internet has expanded across the state, fewer and fewer schools have needed state assistance through the program.

But Frederiksen said it’s still a big help for remote, rural schools.

Lauren Burch sees that first hand. He’s the superintendent of the Southeast Island School District, which has fewer than 200 students across nine schools in Southeast Alaska.

“I have a bunch of schools that are roughly 10, 12, 15 students, and with one teacher or maybe two. But you know, one teacher doesn’t know everything,” he said.

At those schools, Burch said, students take many upper-level classes online, through video conference.

Burch is concerned about the future of state support for internet in schools. Several sites in his district are hovering around 10 students. That’s the cutoff point for much of the state funding schools receive.

He said anything that makes it harder to serve students frustrates parents. On the edge like that, he worries about all of it — including falling behind in technology. He’s seen families leave the school district to seek better educational opportunities for their kids. And that, he said, can set off a devastating cascade.

“If the school closes, you know you can have a community of two or three hundred, and within a few years it’s down to 30, 40 people. I’ve closed two schools, Edna Bay and Port Protection, and they’ve dwindled down to, you know, to not much,” Burch said.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed 2020 budget would reduce funding for the program to $1,487,500.

That’s actually enough to support all the mostly remote, rural schools that still need help meeting the 10-mbps baseline.

But there is a bill with versions in both the House and Senate that would raise the baseline and help school districts pay for more than twice as much bandwidth, up to 25 mbps. That would make the program useful to more schools.

But it would also put the state on the line for much higher costs. The Senate’s version of the bill would increase funding to $10,163,825.

Frederiksen is watching closely. She would be happy to see the baseline increased.

“I think it would help rural students get a much better education,” she said. “It’s just whether we have the will and the funding to make it happen.”

The House’s version of the bill, HB 75, is in the House Education Committee. The Senate Education Committee referred its version of the bill, SB 74, to the Senate Finance Committee on April 1.