May 01 2007

Florida school district builds community network

By Elizabeth Millard

Many school districts have implemented wide area networks, but for Broward County Public Schools in south Florida, the definition of “wide” extends well beyond its campuses. Broward has begun an initiative to link not just separate school locations but also bring in police stations, hospitals and libraries.

The OneBrowardNetwork project aims to use a combination of wired and wireless network infrastructures to connect the entire county, even providing broadband access to parks and homes. One particularly compelling aspect is a partnership between the Sheriff’s Department and the school district to implement real-time video surveillance technology to enhance
security and safety.

OneBrowardNetwork grew out of a response to new Federal Communications Commission rules that require licensed spectrum holders to plan for digital broadband applications, says Phyllis Schiffer-Simon, director for the Broward Education Communications Network.

“We’ve been anticipating the new FCC rules,” she says. “Also, our school district had resources that could be leveraged and a need to provide digital inclusion for our students, teachers and parents.”

Schiffer-Simon studied what was happening in other digital-savvy cities and focused in on how the OneCleveland network had come together. For that project, Cleveland and northeast Ohio public and nonprofit institutions share one fiber-optic network that has since been renamed OneCommunity. Members include K-12 and higher education organizations, art institutions, government offices and nonprofit organizations.

The only excluded groups are commercial enterprises. Despite that, OneCommunity does hope to draw more businesses to the Cleveland area, says Mark Ansboury, chief technology officer for the project. “We’re using technology as a catalyst for everything that drives the economy, such as government, education and health care — everything that attracts companies
to a community.” The group plans to extend the network to businesses in the future to create a collaborative online environment for private and public organizations.

After reviewing the Cleveland project, Schiffer-Simon thought that Broward could benefit from a similar approach. She conceived of OneBrowardNetwork as a communitywide network rather than a municipal network.

“The main difference between OneBroward and a municipal network is that we have nine large organizations involved in creating a shared, managed network,” she says. “Most municipal networks are brought forward by an individual city and are narrower in scope.”

Challenge Round

The extensive vision required research into emerging technologies and existing infrastructure options, but it wasn’t the technical aspects that proved daunting. Schiffer-Simon points to what she calls positive challenges: tackling the planning that’s needed, designing the network and identifying potential funding sources for building it out. Her group intends to “entertain all options,” including public and private partnerships.

OneCommunity has depended on grants to keep its network running. In 2005, it received $100,000 from an Ohio foundation; it won a second similarly sized grant this year. Maintaining funding has been an ongoing effort, says Ansboury, and his team has secured most of its operating budget through grass-roots fundraising. Also, Ohio companies donated nearly 600 miles of
fiber cable.

“We started by working with the community and finding champions within different communities to develop this,” Ansboury says. “Then we got foundations involved and commercial enterprises.”

For now, the OneBrowardNetwork initiative is in the discussion phase, but the numerous and wide-ranging talks involve multiple organizations. Schiffer-Simon kicked off the effort by arranging meetings with potential stakeholders such as local universities and community colleges, county government offices, public-safety groups and health-care organizations. Eventually, the disparate entities began chatting about unmet needs and the steps they were all already taking to expand their network capabilities, she says.

Next, the OneBrowardNetwork participants formed a technology council to discuss applications and infrastructure. Ultimately, Schiffer-Simon says, all of the organizations that signed on found they had unmet broadband needs and saw value in pooling resources. Broward County Schools intends to lend its existing school communications towers and toll-free telephone frequencies to the initiative.

During the first phase of the project, the group conducted a proof of concept for several broadband applications, developed consortium partnership agreements and conducted a countywide asset analysis. The next phase will involve setting up governance of the consortium and implementing pilot projects:

•    A libraries’ link will provide a story-time videoconference.

•    A live feed will give the police access to camera footage from school buses.

•    An electronic education portal will let parents, teachers and students access lesson plans, textbooks and homework assistance, and even consult a counselor virtually.

Schiffer-Simon says the group will no doubt encounter hurdles as it implements these projects but the benefits should outweigh the headaches.

Based on the experience so far, Schiffer-Simon advocates looking into other projects that have rolled out. “While no two models are alike, much can be learned from the approach others have taken,” she says. “And don’t be afraid to be visionary.”

Getting Connected

Broward is far from the only county trying to build a communitywide network and nearly all plan to include school districts in the effort, says Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education.

“The justification for these networks is to bring together government services, education and economic development,” he says. “Broward is ahead of the game since it has knowledge, expertise and services available.”

In many cases, planning the technical aspects is not a big hurdle, he adds, but the right leadership and a high level of cooperation are key. “It’s not a small task, so you need strong, visionary leadership.”

Cooperative arrangements can go a long way toward laying the groundwork, but to succeed any municipal or communitywide project also requires a passionate advocate, such as Schiffer-Simon, who can build consensus and shepherd the process, Knezek says.

In the future, it’s likely that connected communities will be a draw for new residents, he says. “We’ll start to see the same kind of differentiation as you do at airports, where you want to fly into the ones that have free wireless. People will see these community networks as an indication of a higher quality of life.”

A Taste of Lemon

Lemon Grove School District in California is among the vanguard of districts that have rolled out communitywide networks. It began work on LemonLINK in 1993, well before many districts even considered creating networked campuses.

Led by the district’s director of information systems, Darryl LaGace, the hybrid microwave and fiber-optic network serves as a community learning hub for the surrounding area. A microwave tower at the district office connects every school and city facility. The wide area network has enough bandwidth to support a duplex Ethernet connection to each location.

To keep the effort working, the district created business partnerships that provide funding and technology. Some of its partners include companies such as Cisco Systems, Citrix and Microsoft.

An early partnership with Cox Communications, for example, helped the district create intranet connectivity for the schools and to students at home. That type of connection has become invaluable, says Samantha Swann, a Lemon Grove science teacher. Students use tablet PCs and home wireless connections to work on projects and stay in touch with one another.

“It feels like we’re all together, even though we’re geographically separated,” Swann says. “The continuous focus on innovation helps enormously because it drives new educational efforts.”

Getting Ready for Expansion

If you’re only getting started on a communitywide network effort, it’s a good idea to make sure the district backbone network is up to snuff first:

• Consider bundles put together by companies and cable operators that combine Voice over IP, broadband and wireless capabilities.

• Change cooling and power configurations to achieve better efficiency; remember to cool the rack, not the room.

• Check that all wireless equipment for Wi-Fi Alliance certification.

• Install automated management tools to monitor security, diagnostics and signal strength.

• Research whether virtualization could help with capacity planning.

• Anticipate future changes by consider whether multicore CPUs would make sense for your district, particularly for better server utilization.