Executive Director of Technology Services Ben Startzer took Mesa Valley County School District in Grand Junction, Colo., from a point-to-point T1 network to 100 percent fiber this school year.

Apr 11 2007

Tech Watch II

How to build your district's infrastructure within today's budget, while making sure it won't be outdated tomorrow.

The Network Dilemma
How to build your district’s infrastructure within today’s budget, while making sure it won’t be outdated tomorrow.

Fontana Unified School District in southern California in the late 1990s was like a lot of districts. Interested in boosting its Internet capacity and serving more students, it turned to T1 lines. With a data-transmission rate of 1.544 megabits per second, a single T1 line can comfortably support hundreds of users for general browsing.

However, this situation quickly went from satisfactory to super slow. The network couldn’t support the increasing number of schools, students and computers on campuses. “T1 was great back then, but not anymore,” says David Araujo, the district’s network services coordinator. “The teachers have really started to use Internet resources more, and they’re using network applications like crazy and bringing video streaming to the classroom.” Currently, Fontana is in the final phase of upgrading from T1 to a fiber-based Gigabit network.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem many school districts are facing. Districts must create a network infrastructure today that can provide the flexibility to support the higher speeds and greater bandwidth that tomorrow’s networks will require. A well-designed network infrastructure will account for, as much as possible, emerging and evolving technologies — no small task.

Thomas W. Greaves, chairman of The Greaves Group, blames this delay on schools’ laborious budget process. “It isn’t necessarily that they are slow to pick up on what is needed,” says Greaves, whose group does strategic educational consulting. “So many districts, when they want to move to something new, buy a small amount in year one, and then if it works, roll it out in years two to five. Because schools have very limited budgets, they are much less likely to rip out anything that is working.”

When it comes to future planning, “most school districts miss a major step here,” says Greaves. “They do not prepare a five-year rolling forecast of base technologies. Once you have the base technologies right, the year-to-year purchasing decisions fall into place.” But it’s difficult to adequately account for tech changes. He cited the 802.11 wireless standard as an example. “We have moved from 802.11b to 802.11a to 802.11g to 802.11Pre-n, and are moving to 802.11n. What does this mean? For the past six months, it would be a terrible time to buy a large amount of 802.11 Wi-Fi infrastructure.”

Is Fiber the Answer?

Fiber is more expensive than copper wire, but it carries some advantages that make it the go-to choice for networking today. Fiber is thousands of times faster than copper and can carry signals hundreds of times farther before needing a repeater. It also offers greater reliability, a key factor with schools using their networks for everything from private student information to test scores.

Decision Time

Although building a network raises big questions, more districts are deciding that fiber is the answer.

Greaves says he knows of no reliable data that charts fiber’s growth in schools, but he says many large districts have already upgraded. “Certainly fiber between buildings has been pretty standard for several years. Schools are going more toward fiber and plan to have a Gigabit to the desktop.”

“We’ve invested pretty heavily in fiber, even though there have been continued advancements in Cat 5,” says Chip Kimball, deputy superintendent of the Lake Washington School District in Redmond, Wash. “By investing in fiber, we really give ourselves almost unlimited bandwidth.”

Like Lake Washington, the Mesa Valley County School District in Grand Junction, Colo., faced a sim­ilar networking challenge with aging local area network (LAN) equipment and saturated T1 lines that could not keep up with demand.

“Up until this past summer, we were a point-to-point T1 network,” says Ben Startzer, executive director of technology services for the Mesa Valley County School District. “That was the hip network source of the early 1990s, but as time went on we were connecting as many as 300 computers and forcing them through that 1.5 Mbps pipe. Bandwidth is everything and we made a case to move to a fiber network.”

Mesa Valley County School District has a 100 percent fiber-optic network that provides the district with 100 Mbps service between school locations and high-speed 20 Mbps connectivity to the Internet, which can be shared by all the schools. This high-capacity network uses electronics capable of transmission speeds of 1 gigabit per second. The design of the WAN, which connects 43 school locations and the district’s administration building, is flexible and allows the district to increase the number of sites on the network and expand the amount of bandwidth allocated to any location.

“Our Internet provider gives us some room for spikes and we’re taking money from them I think because we’re averaging 31 Mbps,” says Startzer. “We’ve made plans to augment our Internet pipe to 45 Mbps.”

Finding Support

With tight budgets, school districts are under increasing pressure to justify current and proposed technology expenditures. Consequently, getting buy-in for technology purchases and updates upfront at the executive management level is essential, according to Linda Sharp, leader of the Cyber Security for the Digital District project at the Consortium for School Networking.

“If you don’t have the support of superintendents and the high administration, you don’t have the finances to take care of and future-proof your networks,” says Sharp. “School districts need to update and maintain networks. That’s a critical component. Budgets are tight and schools need to have their own internal technology champions.”

Sharp says updating and maintaining school networks should be viewed as a long-term investment by districts, and that network planning and funding should be given the same level of importance as other competing school priorities.

“We are no longer operating in a K-12 world where networks are a luxury. They are an absolute necessity in our schools” she says. “Ultimately, it should be seen as an investment in our children’s future that is directly tied to the primary goal of teaching and learning.”

Cost as a Driver

If the fiber answer is easy to reach, working out a system and its costs are not.

Chip Kimball summarizes the problem by explaining how Lake Washington arrived at its present solution.

“For a number of our schools the city of Redmond had conduit in the ground. We entered into an agreement with them to use the conduit, and we pulled the fiber at relatively low cost. In other parts of the district we purchased dark fiber that had already been laid, and in other parts of the district we had to lay our own fiber and dig up the streets — very expensive. As a result, the costs are very hard to nail down.”

That said, Lake Washington has a district of 48 schools that covers 75 square miles and is in four municipalities. “We spent approximately $6 million on the three-year project including fiber, equipment, planning and staff,” he says. On the replacement side, to update the 48 school WAN switches as well as core switches and aggregation points, the district budgets about $125,000 per year.

The district continues to refine how it manages its bandwidth by allocating bandwidth space and having tool sets that ensure quality of service and redundancy.

“Redundancy is the most difficult to pay for because if you’re looking for an alternative path on a wide area network [WAN] it might double or triple your costs,” says Kimball. “We make redundancy investments when they are affordable.”

Mesa Valley County School District is one of the lowest-funded districts in Colorado, and it needed to find a way to augment its network without increasing costs. Startzer credits the FCC’s E-rate program with providing the district with the means for acquiring telecommunications infrastructure.

“We were spending $80,000 a year on T1 services and now we lease fiber for that same amount,” says Startzer. Because it isn’t our fiber we can lease it under the auspices of E-rate.” Startzer says if Mesa Valley County School District had built its own fiber network it would have cost the district almost $6 million.

When it comes to school districts investing in network infrastructure, there’s a simple maxim. It’s usually less expensive in the long run to overestimate network needs at the beginning than it is to add capacity and capabilities after the fact.

Fontana’s costs for its network update were even more modest. “The vast majority of costs were covered by external funding sources including federal and state of California funding sources,” says Randy Bassett, the district’s director of technology. Based on current discounts, the costs of providing full gigabit services to all 46 sites are about $2,700 per month — less than $60 per site.

He says it’s taken a little more than a year, from contract signing, to implement services district-wide. Because the district followed a planning and replacement cycle, the need for new equipment to match the network was kept to a minimum. “While we needed to ensure that our site and district core switches were capable of layer 3 switching and gigabit capacities, these replacements were already a part of district technology planning,” he adds.

Wireless Concerns

Mesa Valley County School District in Grand Junction, Colo., is looking to provide 100 percent wireless network coverage in all 44 of its school buildings, although no budget has been approved for it yet. Currently, only six buildings in the district have wireless saturation.

Lake Washington School District in Redmond, Wash., is also installing a wireless infrastructure to complement its broadband fiber component. By June, all of the district’s 48 schools will have wireless networks in place.

“Although we know the future is wireless, in many cases wireless isn’t reliable enough right now for high-bandwidth applications,” says deputy superintendent Chip Kimball. “The challenge is delivering high-bandwidth, high-quality wireless as opposed to what we have today. Full-screen, full-motion video over a wireless connection is what we’re looking for over time.”

Data availability 24 hours a day, seven days per week, is an absolute requirement for the country’s school districts — now and into the future. In the four years Ben Startzer has managed IT for the Mesa Valley County School District, it has upgraded data backup systems twice and is planning its third upgrade this summer to keep up with ever-growing databases.

“Five years ago, we were in a position where data was a conven­ience. But, as technology has grown, now data access around the clock is mandatory,” says Startzer. “HR systems are online, financial systems are online, special education is online. Basically, every critical system we have is online.”

Key Findings

  • Of those technology directors who track results, 88 percent reported moderate to significant improvement from 1:1 computing.
  • Digital content is being funded outside the tech budget. One in three tech directors report that 20 percent or more of their spending for digital content and cur­riculum comes from outside their budget.
  • Schools will continue to increase their use of formative assessment software. Budget projections predict these software purchases will grow at 8.3 percent a year, to more than $350 million in 2006.
  • Open-source computing is growing rapidly, with a prediction that widespread use will grow eightfold in the next five years.