School district officials spoke about the need to increase internet speed in facilities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions. The call for faster school internet comes before the state legislators consider a bill allocating funds for the increase.
“Internet nowadays is the running water of the school district,” said Amy Eakin, director of technology at the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. “You can’t operate systems without internet. It’s just the foundation … that everything runs on.”
The state legislature in 2014 established the Alaska School Broadband Assistance Grant program to help schools increase internet download speeds to 10 megabits. In 2020, legislators revised the statute to 25 megabits.
Last year, more than 150 Alaska schools in 27 school districts benefited from the BAG awards. Northwest Arctic received $187,385, and North Slope $322,128 in funds to ensure the 25 megabit speed, according to state data.
But the speed of 25 megabits is far from being sufficient in many facilities, Eakin said.
“There are very few homes in the country today that run on 25 megabits, and we have schools with 400 people in them, each of them with a device, having to all operate with only that same 25 megabits,” she said.
Participating in online curriculum activities, taking attendance, logging grades, opening Canvas and conducting other daily operations all involve using the internet, she said.
“For example, if it’s testing time … everybody else has to basically stay off the internet so a pod of students can actually take the test,” Eakin said. “We’re monitoring it the whole time, like, ‘Oh no, this teacher in whatever room is streaming YouTube! You need to make sure they get off of that so we can actually continue to run the tests.’”
Senate Bill 140, introduced in May 2023, seeks to increase the download speeds in schools to 100 megabits. The bill would allow school districts to utilize advances of the decrease in the cost of internet in some rural districts, one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Lyman Hoffman, said in a statement.
At the end of the last legislative session, the bill was amended to include an increase to the Base Student Allocation, the formula to calculate the amount of money allotted by the state to each of the 54 districts. A House Rules Committee hearing was scheduled for the second day of the session to discuss the bill.
To bring the internet speed increase in schools to life, the Department of Education and Early Development is now asking internet service industry providers to assist the department in estimating the cost of increasing download speeds, according to a statement they released on Jan. 8.
North Slope Borough School District highlighted the need during their January meeting last Thursday when Rep. Thomas Baker asked them about their priorities. Baker said he plans to look into the issue.
“Having the resources to allow our students to study to (and to) access material, it’s imperative,” Baker said.
For the vast majority of schools in Northwest Arctic the increase would be adequate, at least for now, Eakin said. In larger schools, like the ones in Kotzebue and Selawik, higher speeds would be ideal, but having 100 megabits would be a substantial improvement, she said.
“That’s four times what we have right now,” she said. “We’re not even remotely close to that.”
Eakin added that state funding is necessary to increase the internet speed in the facilities.
“We can’t increase our bandwidth on our own because our funding is flat. We have to pay for heating, electricity, we have to pay for staff, we want to provide things for our students,” she said. “We’re stuck. We can’t do it without the support of the state.”