County And School District Join Forces For A High-Speed Network

A fiber network consortium offers a Florida school district, a city and a county robust connectivity that can weather any storm.

A Florida city, county and school district joined forces to create a high-speed network that provides fast access.

Gusting hurricanes, streaming video, swelling ranks of users: It’ll take more than that to scuttle the network for this Florida school district. But a near-bulletproof network doesn’t happen by accident.

The Indian River School District, Indian River County and the city of Vero Beach, Fla., have spent more than 10 years planning and building their network. In the early 1990s, the three organizations created a cooperative to develop a fiber network that would provide high-speed connectivity for all the schools in the district, as well as for city and county offices.

 Today, the organizations’ resulting cost-effective fiber cooperative has negligible bandwidth problems, maintains connection even during life-threatening hurricanes and delivers digital media to all classrooms in the school district. Thirty locations within the district, including 20 schools, are connected via the fiber network—with more to come.

 The potential for problems inherent in coordinating the needs and ideas of different organizations with their own constituencies and missions might have daunted fainter hearts. But not the individuals in this school district.

“It’s difficult to bring three different government bodies together to create a co-op,” says Dean Manny, operations, telecommunications technology specialist for the Indian River School District. “But we haven’t had any problems with it; it’s worked out extremely well.”

Advantage—Fiber

One big advantage of the fiber network is that it lets the district stream video across the data links, says Ralph Starr, network analyst for the Indian River School District. “We have a gigabit fiber backbone between all locations and to all wiring closets,” he says. “We have 100Base-T [linked] to the 5,000 desktops and 100 servers in the school district.

“It’s much more cost-effective, faster and more reliable than 1.5Mbps [megabits per second] for T1. We don’t see bandwidth or connection problems of any kind when it comes to speed.”

The fiber network didn’t spring up overnight: It took a good five years to build it out. Only last year, an elementary school in Fellsmere, a small community in the county, was brought online, according to Manny.

“That school has a lot of migrant students, and their need was great,” he says. But it took some work and some ingenuity to make it happen.

“There was a more than 20,000-foot run from the nearest site,” he explains. “That took awhile to bring online.” The school district got some help from the local cable company, Comcast, which “allowed the school district to overlap our fiber onto its strand,” Manny says. “We’ve had a lot of participation within the community.”

Advantage—Users

The truest test of success, however, is the benefits that the network brings to the classroom and, ultimately, to each student. The fiber network delivers streaming video—viewable on a 28- inch TV or on a workstation—to every classroom. With the school district offering distance-learning programs, which are available via the high-speed network, every student reaps the benefits of the fiber co-op.

“We’re able to accomplish a lot that many school systems can’t accomplish,” Manny says.

At Vero Beach High School, Brian Cook, educational technology specialist, says, “the biggest benefit is that when we need additional bandwidth, we have it. It’s up to us to reassign it. Each line may have 30 pairs, so if we need more bandwidth or we’re setting up a new location, we can just reassign one of those pairs to that school.”

The fiber network’s capabilities also play a crucial role in helping the school district with its emergency management responsibilities. The schools in this oceanfront community are used as emergency shelters, and people may live in the schools for up to three weeks at a time.

In Vero Beach alone this year, two severe storms tore into the city, and a third struck a glancing blow that nevertheless affected the city directly. Although conventional phone service went out, the fiber network’s phones continued working even through the worst of the hurricanes.

“We could pass information between the shelters,” Cook says. “The public phones were out, but we were able to call other schools and remain in contact with the community.”

Advantage—IT Staff

In the Indian River School District, the fiber setup has gone a long way toward simplifying maintenance chores for Starr and his seven technicians. From their desktops, the IT staff now can handle network updates and system configurations at the district level. “It’s a reliable system,” Starr says.

Part of the reason for that reliability is that about half of the fiber is underground, so the network remains stable, and there is little need for repairs. “The only thing that kept our network down was the fact that we didn’t have power at the schools,” Manny says. “Otherwise we had only one location that was damaged, and that was repaired within a couple of days.”

The fiber network offers a further advantage for emergency management: Its network map gives the phone system’s 911 location capabilities pinpoint accuracy.

“The system knows they’re calling from a specific classroom at a specific site,” Manny says. “It’s no longer that they just respond to the school and then have to find which classroom the call came from. They know exactly where they need to go. When it comes to security, this system has several benefits.”

Since little maintenance is needed, it doesn’t take much effort to keep the network running smoothly, Manny says. “Once it’s set up and the fiber is in place, it’s almost like you forget it,” he says.

The network’s greatest maintenance need comes not from the co-op’s usage, but from the booming growth of the area.

“We’re at a high-growth mode in this area, with a lot of road construction,” Manny says. “We typically have to move and replace certain sections of fiber. Sometimes the area underground is damaged by construction. But the entire time we’ve had the system in place, we’ve had [only] six or eight outages where the fiber would get cut by a contractor during construction.”

Advantage—the Bottom Line

In a favorably ironic twist, the upgrade to a fiber network has been a money-saver for the district, Manny says. “It has saved us in excess of $250,000 a year in [communications provider] expenses,” he says. “The lifetime of the network is much greater than the initial cost. Given what it delivers to our students, it is well worth it.”

But the savings go beyond mere cost avoidance. The co-op also derives revenue from the network by leasing lines to local businesses that need the same reliable network access.

“You can bury 30 or 50 pairs of fiber-optic cable and then segment them as needed so that each group gets a pair,” says Vero Beach High School’s Cook. “The unused pairs are rented out to businesses that pay the co-op for the use of the pairs. That way, each member of the co-op benefits.”

A fair amount of revenue comes in as a result. “It’s divided up based on who owns what fiber,” says Indian River’s Manny. “It helps pay for maintenance issues, but [the fiber network] is not completely self-supporting.”

Advantages to Come

The future holds promise of further benefits from the fiber network. Next to come, Cook says, is “increasing digital media, as well as a small rollout of VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] phones that will let teachers make and receive calls anywhere within the district.”

In the near future, the fiber network itself will be undergoing significant growth. The Indian River School District is expanding to include another elementary school and another high school by 2007, and there’s a great need to increase the availability of digital media throughout Indian River County.

“We’re in growth mode,” Manny says. And the fiber co-op is poised to support that growth.

Based in San Francisco, Catherine LaCroix is a freelance writer who reports on technology and education trends for print and Web publications.

Bringing the World to the Classroom

Vero Beach High School is ready for its close-up. The Florida school is taking advantage of the fiber network linking schools and county and city government to expand its use of video in the classroom and to convert an analog videotape system to an all-digital media system that plays from servers and is available to every school in the district.

“We’re working on a media system that would let us distribute video to the desktop and some streaming media,” says Brian Cook, an educational technology specialist at Vero Beach High School.

The school has been using live streaming video to connect with the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Vero Beach, he says. Students can ask questions of one of the experts at Harbor Branch and receive answers in real time for their marine biology classes.

To handle video management tasks, the school district is using a searchable, interactive Web-based media-on-demand system that lets users view, search and schedule videos to play at a selected time. The high school is currently fine-tuning the media-on-demand system so teachers will be able to review media at home and control it over the Web in the classroom, according to Cook.

At Vero Beach High School, Cook says, “We run two channels out of the high school—a government channel and an education channel—which are used to keep the public informed of school events via both district-level and school-level news shows, produced by and featuring students.”

By bringing such a variety of video experiences to the classroom, the system helps offset the effects of recent cutbacks on field trips. Howard White, a chemistry teacher at Vero Beach High School, uses the system running on the fiber network to take his students, via live Webcasts, to classes at the county’s Indian River Community College (IRCC).

The school set up the system for one-directional videoconferencing so students at the high school could see and hear the professor and the class. Simultaneously, a chat room lets Vero Beach students—along with a class from a school in another county that is “sitting in” on the class—type messages to ask questions of the professor who is conducting the class at IRCC. A staffer at the community college relays responses via computer.

In some ways, the virtual field trip offers a richer experience than an actual one might, because it lets students interact with college professors, White says. “The kids can ask questions live and receive immediate answers,” he notes. “That’s not always possible on a field trip.”

Oct 31 2006

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