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Schools boost broadband to meet demand

How to upgrade your network to handle today’s education traffic
At Mentor Public Schools in Ohio, the IT team set up Chromebooks for all the elementary schools. And as part of the 1-to-1 initiative, high school students will have MacBooks.
At Mentor Public Schools in Ohio, the IT team set up Chromebooks for all the elementary schools. And as part of the 1-to-1 initiative, high school students will have MacBooks.

There’s good news for district leaders in the ongoing battle to meet the ever-increasing demand for bandwidth.

One-gigabit networks are coming to more areas, the cost of service per megabit is decreasing, and funding through E-rate and other sources is increasing.

Many district networks are straining under the deluge of digital learning resources. Web-based learning content can include bandwidth-heavy videos, graphics and audio files. Online testing required to meet any new learning standards’ requirements has added to the overload.

“Networks in most districts are already stretched, and the demand for bandwidth will just continue to increase,” says Lan Neugent, interim executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA). “For some districts, the issue is cost. For others, the capacity just isn’t available in their area.”

SETDA recommends schools now have at least 100 megabits per second (or Mbps) capacity per 1,000 users. The recommended capacity takes a big jump for 2017-18, to 1,000 Mbps (1 gigabit, or Gbps) per 1,000 users.

However, 63 percent of districts are not even meeting today’s standard, says Nell Hurley, director of marketing and communications at Education SuperHighway, an organization focused on upgrading the internet infrastructure in K12 public schools. In fact, the U.S. is 16th in the world in average connection speed.

Fiber, funding add up

The most reliable conduit for delivering high bandwidth of a gigabit or more is fiber; and fortunately, providers are laying more of it.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, implemented under President Obama in 2009, made one-time grant funds available to deploy broadband infrastructure. This allowed many communities and states to lay fiber-optic cable.

Get the most capacity at the best price

Some tips for tech staff include:

  • Check contracts available through state and regional networks and associations.
  • Benchmark what other districts are paying and use the information to negotiate with your ISP. Education SuperHighway will have benchmark data available this fall at www.educationsuperhighway.org.
  • Work with larger districts in your area to buy off their contract.
  • Make sure you are getting the bandwidth you are paying for, and to gauge future needs. Speed test tools are available at www.acceleratevirginia.org/speedtest and www.schoolspeedtest.org.
  • Check with area universities and colleges to see if you can connect to their WAN.
  • Use tools from AT&T, Verizon and other ISPs to monitor and then ramp up or decrease available bandwidth (and costs) on a given day.
  • Before signing a contract, ask ISPs for their plans for growing bandwidth capacity and enhancing products.

Sources: Time Warner, SETDA, AT&T, Verizon, Education SuperHighway

Traffic that flows through the municipal-owned cable is often free or low-cost to districts tied in to the network. When the traffic extends beyond the boundaries of that network, it must travel on networks owned by internet service providers (ISPs) such as Verizon, Time Warner and AT&T.

“The Recovery act brought about a lot of new investment to deliver broadband to underserved areas,” says Rob Vietkze, vice president for network services at Internet2.

The Internet2 Network offers 100- gigabit Ethernet technology for the research and education community. “About $1 billion went into laying fiber to support community anchor institutions like K12 libraries,” Vietkze says. “The downside is that some states did not apply evenly.”

That means these states did not get the funding to lay fiber in some regions.

Time Warner, an ISP, says hundreds of its district customers are receiving 1-gig bandwidth, and that a smaller segment are even hitting speeds of 10 or 100 Gbps at hubs where the traffic enters a higher speed circuit, says Don Kosec, vice president of major sales at Time Warner.

When service is not available in their area, an increasing number of districts are lighting up dark fiber, which is cable that has already been installed but is not yet in use. ISPs often lay more lines than what’s needed, but they do not provide service on those lines until there is enough demand.

Thousands of miles of dark fiber are available in the United States. Dark fiber is typically leased from the ISP that installed it or from companies that manage and market it. The lines are then connected directly to the district’s network with little to no extra equipment.

Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, for example, leases its fiber from a local cable provider. Traffic flows through it at 1 gig and can be amped up to 10 gigs when needed. “We have more control over our bandwidth this way than if we got it from a commercial provider (an ISP),” says Mark Klingler, director of technology services at Forsyth County.

District leaders can check broadband availability in their area on the National Broadband Map created by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration. The database shows where broadband service is available, the technology used to provide the service, the maximum advertised speeds, and the names of the internet service providers.

Thirty-five percent of schools do not have fiber connections, according to the Federal Communications Commission. But, Hurley says, the outlook is good. Over the next four years, the FCC is supporting fiber builds to schools and districts through increased E-rate funding and by maximizing the options available for purchasing affordable high-speed connectivity.

Districts can encourage the laying of more fiber by taking advantage of E-rate funds, Hurley says. “And they should be working with their local service providers to understand their options, and think about the network they need and want,” Hurley adds.

Another plus: When one ISP offers 1-gig service to a metropolitan area, other providers often jump in and offer competitive pricing. “We’ve noticed that the cost per megabit keeps going down. When we bumped up our service from 1 gigabit to 2, there was hardly any increase at all,” says Klingler of Forsyth County.

How much is enough?

When negotiating a contract or planning network upgrades, district leaders first need to get a handle on current and future volume. “A starting point is thinking about how technology is being used in classrooms, what applications are running, the number of devices being used, and the demands of online assessments,” says Kevin Carman, director of education marketing at AT&T.

Tackling the Wi-Fi challenge

Here’s some guidance for resolving Wi-Fi demand:

  • Conduct a site survey and establish the right Wi-Fi network design. This is critical for optimizing cost and performance of your wireless network.
  • Assess the number and types of devices before selecting a Wi-Fi solution.
  • Understand the trade-off between price and maintenance time when you select a solution.
  • Install 1.2 access points per classroom to support high-bandwidth networks.
  • Read the Wi-Fi buyer’s guide published by Education SuperHighway at http://buyersguide.educationsuperhighway.org.

Source: Education SuperHighway

The planning group should include staff from the curriculum, procurement and technical departments, including the infrastructure team. And administrators should always plan for steadily increasing demand.

Forsyth County Schools had a total capacity of 3 Gbps this past year and will soon bump it up to 4 Gbps.

“Before, we could pretty squarely predict what our needs were going to be one to three years out,” says Klingler. “But since we implemented our BYOD program, we start out the year thinking we have plenty of bandwidth and by Christmas we are struggling again.”

Before increasing bandwidth, switches and routers need to be upgraded to support the higher speeds. Klingler recommends buying firewalls, filters and load balancers that can have their capacity bumped up through software licensing. Other upgrades can include installing additional Wi-Fi access points periodically and replacing cables every four to five years.

Education SuperHighway says districts could possibly negotiate better deals with service and equipment suppliers by upgrading many parts of the network at once. But because new technology crops up and prices decrease every year, it can be more cost-effective to spread upgrades over time.

Often, the cost of hardware can be covered at least in part through Category 2 funding available through E-rate. The funding covers some inside building equipment at an allocation of about $150 per student. “Districts should be able to get what they need within that budget, but they need to be smart about what they are spending and buy only what they need,” says Hurley.

Mentor Public Schools in Ohio spent around $450,000 on an extensive upgrade that included new equipment routers, virtual servers and switches. The district’s capacity is now running at 2 gigs.

“We made sure we exceeded minimum requirements,” says Mentor schools’ Superintendent Matt Miller. “We knew we’d need more access points and more bandwidth in the future. My advice is don’t overbuild, but prepare for the demand five to 10 years out.”

Katie Kilfoyle Remis is a freelance writer based in upstate New York.