The House Finance Committee took up a bill Thursday that would mandate the state payi for faster Internet speeds at every school in Alaska.
The bill, HB179, is sponsored by Rep. Benjamin Nageak, D-Barrow, and was introduced during the 2013 session.
“It will bring all schools around the state to a minimum level of Internet service,” Nageak said of the bill. “Schools that do not have ample broadband have to limit educational opportunities and what can be provided over the Internet for students.”
The bill aims to bring every school in the state up to broadband speeds of at least 10 megabits a second. The total cost of the upgrades is expected to be about $13.8 million, Nageak said.
“This bill does not limit any schools ability to increase their Internet speeds, but it does limit the state funding for that,” the representative said. “This will benefit all school districts across the state.”
For schools that are already at or above the 10 megabit a speed, the bill would provide funds equal to 10 percent of what the district paid the year before to bolster the schools’ broadband.
“Today’s world is a whole lot different than what we went through in terms of learning, and there are so many new ways of doing things,” Nageak said.
The Barrow Democrat told committee members about his 5-year-old granddaughter who can proficiently use an iPad to look things up and learn.
“Imagine what we could do if we had access to information like that in every classroom,” Nageak said. “Every student should have a device like that.”
There was no opposition to the concept of bill from members of the money committee or the public, but multiple representatives questioned if increasing Internet speeds is the best choice.
“Do we value more teachers in our classrooms or Internet access?” Rep. Mila Costello, R-Anchorage, asked. “That’s a value
judgment we have to make.”
Debbie Edwardson, the president of the North Slope Borough School District Board of Education, told lawmakers that about 170 of the state’s approximately 500 schools are below the 10 megabit a second speed outlined in the bill.
“If we don’t correct (the gap in Internet availability) will become digital divide of education in our state,” Edwardson said.
She added that updating Internet speeds around the state is “critically important” for the school system.
“It’s a tool that’s increasingly being used with our young people across the country,” she said. “There are certain things no longer being done outside Internet.”
Cordova School District Board of Education president Pete Hoepfner added that rural districts would benefit from increased broadband speeds by being able to stream classes that can’t be offered at every school.
“Internet access does help at increasing student learning,” Hoepfner said. “The Internet is a huge resource, and it’s at your fingertips.”
The committee took no action on the bill, and is expected to consider the proposal with another large education bill currently being debated by lawmakers later in the session.
“A little more from the state will help us a lot in the long run,” Nageak said.