Oct 12 2006

Broadband Technology Improves Rural Life

Broadband technology is helping teachers and social workers in rural Tennessee enhance learning opportunities, secure private data and keep budgets in check.

In rural Northwestern Tennessee, life tends to carry on at a relaxed pace. Teachers and social workers at the federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start program are accustomed to it; generally, they even enjoy it.

However, when it came to accessing and sharing files about more than 1,300 children of low-income families among 24 remote facilities and two administrative offices that are located throughout 13 counties, the staff found the slow pace intolerable.

In the late 1990s, just as technology was increasing educational o

pportunities, educators in rural Tennessee saw their budgets shrinking. The threat to the quality of education they could offer was insupportable.

So the Tennesseans decided to do something about it.

Project Connect

At Northwest Tennessee Head Start, “each center had its own dedicated Internet access—frame relay at 128K—which was very, very slow,” recalls Bryan Kincaid, who is the facility and information technology administrator for the nonprofit group that provides low-income, at-risk children with health and education services.

When visiting remote classrooms, some of which are two hours away from the central office in McKenzie, Tenn., the staff’s frustration was obvious. “They were just sitting there waiting” for Web pages or files to download, Kincaid explains.

But Kincaid had other concerns. Teachers and administrators had to access each child’s confidential health records from central servers via the Internet, which exposed the files to possible security breaches.

Kincaid sought answers from the University of Tennessee at Martin, which recommended private point-to-point T1 connections with speeds of up to 1.5 megabits per second at each center. This approach would link Head Start’s remote locations directly to its six central servers and the Internet quickly and securely.

At press time, the high-bandwidth solution from BellSouth was due to be live in mid-August. Administrators expect productivity to increase by 200 percent. When it debuts, the Northwest Tennessee Head Start program will also become one of the most technologically advanced programs in the country.

“In general, Head Start programs have not had the funds or technical capabilities to do this,” points out Pamela Castleman, program director for Northwest Tennessee Head Start. “They think they can’t afford it. In our state, I’m constantly pushing that you can’t afford not to do this.”

The new T1 connection costs the same as Head Start’s old frame relay connection did, Castleman says. She and Kincaid have found that many Internet service providers offer special discounts to educational facilities.

Although Castleman is a pioneer for high-bandwidth solutions in her organization, the use of these swifter, more robust connections is growing quickly. Broadband Internet access in the United States surged 42 percent last year as the growing demand for speedier connections remained strong, according to a June 2004 report by the Federal Communications Commission. At the end of 2003, the FCC reported a total of 28.2 million broadband lines in this country.

Distance Learning

Increasingly, K-12 public school systems are using remote learning programs to bridge the gap between growing educational opportunities and shrinking education budgets.

At Camden Central High School and Big Sandy School, which are both in rural west Tennessee, more than 30 students attend an honors English class taught by a professor from the University of Tennessee at Martin via two-way videoconferencing.

“You have a choice of busing students every day [to special classes], having a teacher drive in or coming up with another plan,” says Art Collier, technology coordinator for the Benton County School District in Camden, Tenn., which educates 2,500 students at eight facilities.

In 1999, the school got a $160,000 grant through the federal Goals 2000: Educate America Act to build two high-bandwidth classrooms equipped with Polycom VS4000 Video over Internet Protocol (IP) units. Internet services are provided by Educational Networks of America, a Nashville company now known as ENA, which provides access to 90 percent of the state’s school systems.

Participation in the distance learning classes has been so great that Collier had to buy a wide-angle lens to fit the entire class into the photo that’s transmitted to the university classroom.

“The kids and parents like it a lot,” Collier points out. “It gives them a good taste of [what they can expect] at college.”

Great Expectations

Northwest Tennessee’s Head Start expects great things from its new T1 lines. For starters, Kincaid plans by June 2005 to add Voice over IP telephones at all facilities in order to eliminate long-distance charges. Currently, 75 to 80 percent of long-distance charges are incurred by calls between centers in the region, he says.

Kincaid has already set up a maintenance and inventory system that can report and manage the average 1,200 maintenance requests the central office receives each year. Enhanced bandwidth also will allow for more Web cameras in classrooms and parking lots for easy monitoring by the central office.

New Web-based software will be added to automate attendance and meal counts. Castleman hopes that these technology advances will eventually lead to a paperless system.

“The options are unlimited,” she states.

Stacy Collett is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Broadband by the Numbers

Broadband technology—and the high-bandwidth connections that are inherent in it—is making great strides in the educational arena. Here’s a brief explanation of the underlying technology.

T1, which is currently the most commonly used digital line in the United States, is a dedicated phone connection that supports data rates of 1.544 megabits per second. A T1 line consists of 24 individual channels, each of which supports 64 kilobits per second—enough to carry voice or data traffic.

Most telephone companies let you rent some of these individual channels, known as fractional T1 access. A full T1 line would be suitable for a school with 125 to 250 concurrent users, whereas a smaller school with around 50 to 125 concurrent users might require only a fractional T1.

H.323 is a protocol standard for smoothly transmitting packets of videoconferencing audio and video in Internet Protocol (IP) networks. The specification’s components define how audio, video and data—as well as Internet phone and Voice over IP—should be transmitted.

This provides real-time applications with the quality of service they need to ensure that, even though audio and video packets may take different routes from the sender to the recipient, they will be reassembled and delivered in sync.