Cox Brings Broadband to Ariz. Schools


Little Johnny comes home from his Phoenix elementary school, dumps his books on the kitchen table and asks his mother if he can go play — after all, he says, he doesn't have any homework.

She frowns, then goes over to the computer and calls up the school's Web site. Checking Johnny's third-grade class page, she finds out that he has a book report due, and that he'll have a spelling test in the morning.

Busted. Johnny reluctantly slinks over to the table and grabs his books, heading for his room. There, he can tap into the class Web page from his own computer and start memorizing that spelling list.

That's part of the service envisioned for school kids throughout Arizona by the end of 2003, under a state broadband-access program delivered by Cox Business Services, Cox Communications Inc.'s commercial subsidiary.

Arizona's Students FIRST initiative will bring the state's 1,200 K-12 schools into the broadband age by supplying a high-speed connection and a statewide content network with centralized data and hosting services. Educators, administrators, parents and students will have access to class materials, teaching curricula, testing data, school news and other resources both at school and at home.

So far, the Arizona School Facilities Board has approved a $100 million outlay for networking and equipment from Cisco Systems Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc.

Cox Business Services won the $27.9 million applications service-provider contract and will oversee this virtual learning network. The state is also preparing to award multiple contracts to service providers to supply the individual school connections.

This is the first statewide K-12 broadband education network aimed at linking home and school, said Cox Business Services vice president and general manager for Arizona Robert Carter.

"This is no small task," Carter said. "We're bringing up e-content to 228 school districts and over 1,200 schools.

"This will be accessible at home, so the student that is logged in the morning and is working on a report, if he wants to work on that report in the evening, he can have access to that same content," he added. "Parents can get involved with helping their children, and I think there are some tremendous benefits to this whole process."

The service will be a "great equalizer," especially for rural districts, according to Carter.

"Once a school is connected with the right speeds — whether you are sitting in a small schoolroom on a reservation up in Northeast Arizona or you are sitting in one of the newest, most modern schools in downtown Phoenix — you are seeing the same content at the same speeds," he said.

State of Arizona School Facilities Board executive director Philip Geiger said the project aims to provide content, as well as a connection. Otherwise, "you end up putting in some infrastructure, but it is like a road to nowhere," he said.

The ASP contract calls for enough data warehousing to provide students with the capacity to store their portfolio throughout the 13 years of their education, as well as 252 free software titles for schools and access to another 7,000 titles at a negotiated price.

Optional modules available for school districts include a testing application that enables students to take online quizzes and teachers to monitor their progress.

A key element is making the same material available on computers both at home and at school.

"One of the problems has always been when kids go home, they can't continue doing what they were doing at school because they don't have the same software at the house as they have at the school," Geiger said. "So we definitely wanted to improve on that. We put all of that in place and that kind of completes the circle."

A circle of broadband, that is. Geiger said the high-speed school connection is mandatory, given the size of the project and its demands.

"Every place will have broadband connectivity, even if we have to do satellite," he said. "The dial-up [connection] would certainly never get us anywhere near or close to what we are talking about.

"Districts could never have enough kids on a system with a simple dial-up. It would just never happen. Not only that, but it's the speed at which kids expect to work these days because they have DSL, cable modem and T-1s at home."

Because no single provider has broadband network capacity everywhere, the project also will be a rare case in which rival broadband providers working together. Carter says Cox has already been working with Qwest on the project as a fellow contractor; he expects that to continue as the network is fashioned together.

"I think what you are going to see is an opportunity for companies like Cox and Qwest, which are historically major competitors, to work in very close alignment for the common goal of the students of Arizona," he said. "We've had some great conversations with Qwest, and there are certainly things that they do, strengths that they have and we have. And the state says 'Hey guys, we expect you to work to your own strengths and to work together.' "

While the ASP contract itself is lucrative for Cox, Carter says it works on several business levels. That includes potentially luring more cable-modem subscribers.

"When I looked at the opportunities it afforded us, it's a great opportunity for us to go in and make a statement to the state of Arizona," Carter said. "It's great for the kids, but it's not a bad business decision because there are certainly opportunities for students and parents around the state who will want to be able to elevate their ability for their kids to study at home."

And if such a system works for Arizona, Cox may have an inside track on a new business opportunity.

"Can this be replicated across the United States? Absolutely," Carter said. "I have already received calls from two different states just exploring what we were doing and how we thought that this was going to work, because they are looking at doing something similar in their state. So we know that the other 49 states are going to be looking at this very closely."

Carter has already talked to Cox executives about putting together a project synopsis "so we can be aggressive in the locations where we already have a presence to certainly lead that parade," he said.