Internet access, funding hamper students

Posted: Sunday, September 05, 2010

FAIRBANKS - A task force created by the Alaska Legislature is meeting this week to find ways to overcome poor higher education retention and graduation rates blamed partly on lack of funding and Internet access.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, one of the advisory group's two chairmen, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner the task force hopes to find some solutions to offer with recommendations for better preparing high school students for college.

"No surprises here, we know the problems," Stevens said.

Local funding shortfalls, heavy demand for remedial coursework after high school and a shortfall of student counseling services challenge school districts and the university, he said.

In addition, the state's university system and school districts have increasingly relied on the Internet to reach rural hubs, largely through distance education programs.

But university leaders say the lack of fiber optic and digital microwave infrastructure is a major problem for Alaska, especially as federal agencies raise broadband requirements to speeds unattainable in many rural communities.

Pat Gamble, University of Alaska president, said the state would reap benefits from major investments in fiber optic cable, which parallels the trans-Alaska Pipeline north to Deadhorse but is available almost nowhere else in northern and western Alaska.

Access to research and academics would expand, and broadband represents a significant economic development tool that would provide "huge value to the state," he said.

A number of firms, including Kodiak-Kenai Cable Company and GCI, are proposing to ring western or northern Alaska's coastlines with submerged fiber optic cable to reach more communities.

Steve Smith, the university system's top information technology specialist, said those projects would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and could receive federal stimulus funding.

Smith said the university and GCI are looking into cheaper fiber optic options, such as stringing lines unburied across tundra or along riverbeds.

He said federal communication agencies want to give millions of homes access to the type of broadband service available only with fiber optics. Rural Alaska's existing systems, such as Western Alaska's DeltaNet network, work well but fall far short of connecting to the rest of the world at higher speeds, he said.

"Basically, it's like you're all dressed up to go to the party but you don't have a car to get you there. And it's a problem," Smith said.

Stevens said the task force will meet in Nome, Sitka and Anchorage before meeting in Juneau and issuing recommendations to the Legislature.

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