IT Infrastructure

3 Districts Making Progress on High-Speed Internet

By Benjamin Herold — January 14, 2014 4 min read
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Experts say that fiber-optic cable is still the “gold standard” for providing schools with high-speed connections to the Internet, but for many districts, accessing complete fiber networks remains a challenge. Here’s how three school systems are finding ways to make it happen:

Butte, Mont.

Unable to find a telecommunications firm offering a fast, reliable, and affordable connection between the Internet and the 12 buildings scattered across her rural district, Butte Superintendent Judy M. Jonart decided to start from scratch. The result was an extensive public-private partnership involving the Butte schools, a local economic-development organization, the surrounding county of Silver Bow, the local branch of Montana Tech University, and Fatbeam, a small company dedicated solely to fiber build-outs in the Western United States.

“We work really well together in Montana,” said Ms. Jonart, now in her second year as Butte’s superintendent after 14 years as the director of curriculum and technology for the 5,000-student district.

As part of a 10-year contract, the Butte district will pay to lease the new “lit” fiber (the bandwidth provided by the new network, amounting to 2 gigabits-per-second, per school) for a total of $14,000 per month, 61 percent of which will be covered by federal E-rate funds. The local college, library, and government facilities will receive similar service.

Gregory Green, the president of Fatbeam, said his company has done similar work in 19 markets across Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.

“The knowledge base of these smaller school districts is really growing,” Mr. Green said. “In the past, there weren’t many options, so they didn’t think outside the box much. We’re starting to see a paradigm shift.”

New York City

Unlike many districts struggling to access fiber, New York City is neither rural nor remote. But as of December, 5 percent of the buildings operated by the 1.1 million-student district still lacked a high-speed Internet connection via fiber-optic cable.

Here’s how the department’s massive network works: A Synchronous Optical Networking ring connects large hubs in each of the city’s five boroughs with each other and with the district’s central servers and Internet. Telecommunications firms, including Time Warner, Sidera, and Verizon, manage most of the fiber-optic cable running between those hubs and the city’s schools. But in some cases, that fiber doesn’t make it all the way to the schoolhouse doors.

“It’s really about what we need to do to connect that last mile,” said Hal Friedlander, the district’s chief information officer.

Building out those final pieces of the New York City district’s network has been a five-year project that has cost about $80 million, Mr. Friedlander said. About 70 percent of that is covered by federal E-rate funds, according to the district. (Education Week also reported in October how slow Internet speeds contributed to a $41 million-and-counting settlement with the city teachers’ union.) The work can involve either standard construction or specialized “micro-trenching” work, which involves working with carriers to lay fiber-optic cable just below the surface of busy city streets. Either way, it’s a laborious process that requires collaboration between the district, telecoms, New York City’s departments of transportation and information technology, the office of the city’s deputy mayor, and a number of construction companies, most of whom meet weekly.

For the district, “it’s a lot like being a general contractor,” Mr. Friedlander said. “Each step has to be done in the right order and be tested and verified for the next vendor.”

Suffolk, Va.

What started as a challenge for Suffolk City Schools, on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in southern Virginia, turned into an opportunity.

After a cable provider in the area failed to meet its obligations almost 15 years ago, a settlement led to an agreement between the city and the company to provide fiber-optic cable connections to public buildings in the area. The 14,000-student district pounced, spending about $750,000 for “last-mile” fiber connections to each of its schools—one-tenth of what it would have cost to lay all the fiber itself.

Now, the district owns most of its own high-speed network, allowing it to avoid the large monthly bandwidth fees typically charged by telecommunications companies and retaining the flexibility to inexpensively increase its bandwidth as needed.

“From a philosophical perspective, we’ve always felt that infrastructure was first,” said John W. Littlefield, the district’s director of technology.

That approach continues: The district recently spent big to run all the fiber to a new elementary school, and it has a made a point of not outsourcing the management of its network or related hardware.

“I don’t have to pay someone $200 an hour to configure a switch,” Mr. Littlefield said.

The biggest payoff, he maintained, has been in the classroom. When the district’s instructional team wanted to roll out new online assessments last fall, the network was ready.

“Bandwidth wasn’t even a consideration,” Mr. Littlefield said. “It’s important for the instructional team to have that confidence that the [Internet] connection will be there.”

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as How Some Districts Are Making Progress

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