Under our state’s broadband initiative, the number of Arkansans with access to high-speed internet is increasing, and today I’d like to talk about the Arkansas Access Point Project, a new program that will make the world wide web available for thousands more students.
This week I announced that our Department of Education has signed agreements with three major telecommunications companies to purchase Wi-Fi access devices and unlimited data plans at a reduced cost for every school district in the state.
The Department of Education will buy as many as 20,000 of the devices with $10 million from funding provided through the federal CARES Act. The devices and internet access are free to students. School districts are equipping students with computers and tablets.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to adjust our methods of teaching and focused attention on the need for the option of virtual education. Arkansas Access Point Project expands our ability to teach virtually and increases the number of students who can choose that option.
This program opens new opportunities and narrows the gap between those who have access to high-speed broadband and those who do not. Students will be able to take the devices home. They won’t have to sit in a McDonald’s to do their homework. This is especially important to our rural communities and for families who otherwise might not be able to afford this vital access.
Sally Bennett, superintendent of the rural Rivercrest District in northeast Arkansas, welcomed the news that AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon had agreed to participate in the project. She knows firsthand that the digital divide is real and deep.
Sally and her team of educators have worked hard and creatively during the pandemic to provide internet access to students. In the spring, they equipped school buses with Wi-Fi devices to deliver the internet along with meals for students who were confined to home. They extended Wi-Fi into the schools’ parking lot, but this still doesn’t help the student in their home.
She estimates that 40 percent of the eleven-hundred students in Rivercrest District have no access to internet, so you can understand why she calls our new initiative a “game changer.”
I share the superintendent’s excitement about this agreement, but this doesn’t completely bridge the digital divide in our state. We still have a lot of work to do to expand access to broadband internet. It’s important that everyone in Arkansas has the opportunities that come with easy and reliable access to the world wide web, whether they live in rural Mississippi County or in the state capital.