By Susan Crawford Sep. 30 (Bloomberg View) -- Democratic Governor Mike Beebe of Arkansas is one of the most popular state-level officials in the country, but even he is having a tough time fixing an Arkansas state law that lets telecommunications companies charge K-12 schools sky-high prices to connect their students to the Internet. The state and federal governments have already paid for a fiber network that links Arkansas's colleges to the web. Connecting the K-12 schools to that network would save the state millions of dollars. But that's prevented by one of the most anti-competitive state laws in the nation, and changing it means beating an industry -- led by AT&T -- that is deeply interested in maintaining the status quo. Back in 2005, Arkansas funded a gigabit fiber network called ARE-ON. Today, thanks to an additional $102 million federal grant in 2010, that state network gives the Arkansas colleges a fast, fiber-optic connection to the nationwide Internet2 network, which provides high-capacity connectivity to research institutions. ARE-ON has plenty of unused capacity, and in a rational world the state's elementary and high schools would be part of this network. But the telecom arena doesn't work rationally -- unless you're a telecom company. This isn't a problem in Arkansas alone. Twenty states have laws making a public option for high-speed Internet access difficult or impossible. The Arkansas law, Act 1050 of 2011, includes a particularly pernicious section prohibiting ARE-ON from connecting up K-12 schools; among the states connected to Internet2, only Arkansas excludes those schools. Governor Beebe called Act 1050 a "sneaky amendment that was passed at the last minute without anyone's knowledge." Arkansas ranks near the bottom of the list of states when it comes to digital learning and high-speed Internet access in its public schools. The state's department of education is forced to pay the state's information technology agency for bandwidth, and the IT agency, in turn, allows private providers to gouge the schools for the obsolete connections the schools are forced to buy. Arkansas schools cannot function using this drip of expensive connectivity, and so almost 90 percent buy an additional fiber line on the side. A task force convened by Governor Beebe recommended earlier this year that the state's K-12 schools be connected to ARE-ON. The task force is now leading the charge to amend Act 1050 with the governor's support. A recent television spot funded by Arkansas companies points out that the education of children, not the profits of existing providers, should be the highest priority of the state. But the governor and his allies face stiff opposition from AT&T and CenturyLink, which claim that expanding ARE-ON will endanger the industry's investment in the state. The telecom companies are experts at the art of delay, and know that all they need to do is kick the can down the road until Governor Beebe leaves office at the end of the year. So their trade association asserts that additional information is needed and that they "stand willing to address the needs" of Arkansas schools. They are also good at branding; the providers have formed a coalition of their own called the Arkansas Broadband Coalition for Kids. The long-term success of this country requires cheap, ubiquitous, world-class connectivity. It should not be illegal to choose a competitive provider, even if that competitive provider is a local government. The current law, in Arkansas and other states, represents rent-seeking in its lowliest form: at the expense of schoolchildren. To contact the writer of this article: Susan P. Crawford at email@example.com. To contact the editor responsible for this article: Christopher Flavelle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BRADDOCK, PA - AUGUST 24: Young children work on a computer at the 4 Kids Early Learning Center August 24, 2004 in Braddock, Pennsylvania. The center is funded mostly by The Heinz Endowments. The average family income of children at the center is about $13,000 a year. The H.J. Heinz Co., based in Pittsburgh, once was one of the former industrial center's major employers. Now, Heinz's manufacturing has gone global and the impact on Pittsburgh is less. The Heinz family and its namesake foundation are no longer tied to the company, but their influence lives on, through philanthropy and the involvement of John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, the widow of the late U.S. Senator H. John Heinz III. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)