By next summer, all schools in North Dakota will have access to high-speed internet.
Gov. Doug Burgum and State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, along with the Shawn Riley, the state's chief information officer, and Dakota Carrier Network CEO Seth Arndorfer, announced a plan to upgrade broadband connectivity for state and local governments, K-12 schools and higher education institutions.
According to the state's Information Technology Department, North Dakota will become the first state to achieve 1-gigabit connectivity for all of its school districts — an effort expected to improve digital learning.
"While we already rank high nationally in connectivity for K-12, these significant upgrades, yet cost-neutral, will ensure that our schools have the bandwidth and the speed they need to prepare students for a 21st century economy, which is ever increasingly being influenced by a rapid digital transformation," Burgum said.
EducationSuperHighway, a broadband advocacy group, found in 2016 that of the 103,951 students across 175 districts in North Dakota, 100 percent of those students met the minimum recommended bandwidth goal of 100 kbps per student.
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Though this is good, "minimum is not what we're shooting for," Burgum said.
The state's IT department has extended a contract with Dakota Carrier Network, a broadband service provider that has been providing internet access through the state's network, STAGEnet, since 2000. The two-year contract extension, which won't increase costs to taxpayers, will take effect July 1, 2019.
Baesler applauded the plan and said it will allow teachers to improve their instructional strategies, provide students with more personalized learning opportunities and encourage innovative education projects.
"Students, as you know, find so many resources and information on the internet, and when they don’t have the robust power that they need, it’s challenging for them, it’s frustrating for their teachers, and this will go so far in helping our students reach their fullest potential, which is what we all want for all of our children in North Dakota," she said.
Dakota Carrier Network has spent the past 10 years upgrading STAGEnet members with fiber, which offers faster internet speeds, according to Arndorfer, the CEO of Dakota Carrier Network. The latest upgrade will require electronic updates at some schools and government agencies.
"It’s the largest incremental upgrade that we’ve seen on our network since we installed it back in 2000. Students and teachers are going to notice that they can use the high-definition video for distance education, they can do research, they can download software upgrades, they can take tests and access cloud-based curriculum, all real-time without impacting their fellow student or fellow teacher," he said.
For Mandan Public Schools, the state's network upgrade is welcomed, as the district is planning to go one-to-one with students — meaning all students will have a laptop — in grades 3-12 beginning next school year. Jeff Lind, the district's assistant superintendent, said the district currently has 1-gigabit internet service in its schools, but said the upgrade is "forward-thinking."
"That’s pretty forward-looking on (the state's) part, thinking about, 'OK, what are we going to need five, 10 years from now?' Because, obviously, the bandwidth we have today is working for us, but, five years from now it probably won’t be," he said.
The discussion on further improving the state's network will continue in coming years, according to Burgum, adding the conversation needs to extend beyond internet connectivity for schools, but for other businesses and industries, as well.
"It’s fantastic that we’re on the leading edge, but this is likely a race that is never going to stop," Burgum said. "If we're going to be on the leading edge of the 21st century, we have to have the best internet connectivity for education, for industry. It's not just every school and every community, we have to think about connecting that last mile with every combine, every tractor, every cell phone, every emergency vehicle; we have to cover every inch of the state."
(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)