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Dark Fiber For The Future In Caswell County Schools, NC

Caswell County School Board members recently voted to take a long-term approach to student connectivity in North Carolina.

Ten Years Was A Lifetime Ago

Earlier this month, the issue of Internet access for the schools came before the Board because a lease with the telecommunications company connecting school buildings is about to end. Since the inception of the 10-year agreement, computer and Internet use in schools has skyrocketed; Caswell County Schools now aim to have every child on a computer at school. The district is now served by satellite Internet access to school facilities and in order to supply the speed and reliability they need, the Chief Technology Officer David Useche recommended a fiber-optic network to the Board.

Lease vs. Own

Useche offered two possibilities: 1. lease a lit network, which costs less in the first years of the contract but will not belong to the school district; or 2. pay more for the first five years to have a dark fiber-optic network constructed. The dark fiber network infrastructure will belong to the school district. Caswell County will use E-Rate to help fund the construction of the network, which will result in an overall long-term savings of $35,000. Useche told the Board:

“If we look at the projections for the Lit network, in ten years after E-Rate our cost is going to be $214,255. With the Dark network the cost is $178,729. The difference is a savings of $35,000,” said Useche, who added that the district will use $751,000 in E-rate funds to help build the network. Useche said that the State of North Carolina is using E-rate funds to build networks in some of its rural areas. “If we didn’t have E-Rate funds we could not afford either of these options. We are lucky to have them to provide the services the schools need.”

The Board agreed with Useche’s recommendation to approve the dark fiber option. The agreement will include 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) connectivity for less than $100 per month more than 1 Gbps connectivity. “It’s not like we need ten gigabits right away but pretty soon we will need that much bandwidth,” said Useche.

Savings and Connectivity for Allegheny County Pennsylvania Schools

In Pennsylvania, many of Allegheny County’s schools are about to experience new and improved high-speed Internet access. This summer, school districts throughout Allegheny County will get better connectivity and save public dollars with a new Regional Wide Area Network. 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the Allegheny Intermediate Unit struck a deal with a new contractor to deliver better connectivity for less. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a branch of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, provides services to 42 schools and five career and technical centers in the county surrounding Pittsburgh.

Paying Less and Getting More

The new network will generate major cost savings for the school districts. Jon Amelio, the Chief Technology Officer for Allegheny Intermediate Unit, estimates that they will pay 40 percent - 70 percent less than they do now. Currently, the school districts are paying $1,500 per month; with the new contract, the same speed and connectivity will only cost $550 per month. Many of the school districts are opting to increase their speeds, some by as much as 10-fold for only $895 per month.

Students and teachers will appreciate the faster speeds next school year. The connectivity affects nearly every level of education in the county from preschool teachers working with smartboards to high school students learning about 3-D printers. The new network will also better facilitate the Chinese language classes where Chinese graduate students teach 178 middle- and high-school students in 15 schools via video-conferencing. (For more information on schools and connectivity, check out the Institutional Networks page.)

How Is This Possible?

The structure of the new network enables these major cost savings. The school districts will buy connectivity in bulk under the new contract. This process consolidates the demand, driving down the price. That means better connectivity for less with the new Regional Wide Area Network; the old Regional Wide Area Network did not have this process.

Since 2008, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit has used an older Regional Wide Area Network for the 42 schools and five career/technical colleges. The high prices from that contractor, however, made the Allegheny Intermediate Unit rebid the contract. The new contractor will build a new and more reliable network, starting on July 1st. 

The Benefits of Ownership

The school districts will get better connectivity thanks to the savings from the new Regional Wide Area Network or as Chief Technology Officer Amelio explained:

 “It’s the beauty of bulk purchasing.”'

School districts that own infrastructure, rather than lease expensive lines from Internet service providers, have the flexibility to engage in this type of cost sharing techniques.

Over time, the cost per Megabit for Internet access has decreased; schools with their own infrastructure can capitalize on the reduction to negotiate better contracts to cut down on telecommunications costs. They have better control over their budgets, control their network, and can plan for the future. When they collaborate, they can get even better rates and use the savings for improved educational opportunities.

Sixth Annual SHLB Conference April 27 - 29 at Crystal City, VA

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) is hosting its sixth annual conference from April 27 - 29 at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, VA (near Reagan National Airport in Washington DC).

From the SHLB website:

Every year SHLB's Annual Conference attracts 200-300 people from across the country to discuss key broadband policy issues that are important to anchor institutions and their communities. This year's sixth Annual Conference will focus on E-rate Compliance, Lifeline Reform, Telehealth, and Fiber Build Out, as well as other policies and funding programs that will impact broadband deployment for anchor institutions and communities.

The conference officially kicks off at 12 p.m. noon on Wednesday, April 27th.

Notable plenary speakers at the conference will include US Senator Angus King (I-Maine) and Valerie Truesdale, the Chief Technology, Personalized Learning & Engagement Officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. In addition, representatives from the Broadband Opportunities Council (BOC) will also participate on a lunch panel on the last day of the conference.

Senator King has been a strong proponent of universal broadband access and municipal broadband initiatives. Valerie Truesdale is an advocate for using improved access to broadband and other technologies to transform learning in schools. The Broadband Opportunities Council, established by President Obama, works to understand how the Executive Branch can support communities around the nation seeking to invest in local broadband networks.

The full list of conference speakers includes a link to information about each speaker. The complete conference agenda also provides information about the different sessions and workshops to be held throughout the three day conference.

You can register for the conference online at this link until April 25, 2016. Onsite conference registration will also be available beginning at 12:00pm on Wednesday April 27.

Prices for attending the conference vary depending on your registration type. The cost of registration onsite is an additional $100 for every registration type.

New Report on Digital Inclusion from Sesame Workshop

A recent report by Victoria Rideout and Vikki S. Katz from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Workshop delves into detail on the experiences of lower income families and Internet access. The report, “Opportunity for all? Technology and learning in lower-income families,” points to the promises of digital inclusion for educational opportunities, but also to the current inequalities in Internet access. 

The researchers highlight several key findings from the study in an effort to inform policymakers of the root causes, and effects, of these inequalities on lower-income families. They include issues of race (families headed by Hispanic immigrants are less connected), of access (mobile-only and inconsistent connectivity), and of affordability (despite the existence of discounted programs).

Discounted Programs Not Working

We’ve written several times about the failings of the large corporate providers’ discounted programs for Internet access. Over the past few years, Comcast’s Internet Essentials program has been a prime example. We reported on the Consumerist article that highlighted how the program benefits Comcast more than lower-income families. In 2013, our Lisa Gonzalez shared her own family’s experience with the program. 

Rideout and Katz’s report again show the real impact of these programs’ failures. Only 5% of those surveyed had ever signed up for the programs although many met the eligibility requirements. Even those that did receive the service sometimes found that it could not meet their needs. After all, the program only provides up to 5 megabits per second (Mbps) in download speeds. A parent of a seventh grader in Colorado explained to the researchers (page 11): 

I had (Internet Essentials) because (my children) had assignments that they needed the computer for... I hated it. It wasn’t working. It was too slow, it would freeze and they couldn’t get anything done. We had it for almost a year. I just got rid of it. I was paying $10 (a month) to not use it.

A Better Solution: Community

The report from Rideout and Katz at the Sesame Workshop found that the largest barrier for Internet access in lower-income households is financial. The researchers detail the many ways that better Internet access would provide better education opportunities for lower-income children, and the survey shows that parents know this too.

So, why haven’t these discounted programs been effective in bridging the digital divide? The programs aren’t readily available. Enrollment is confusing. And, more importantly, people outside the community run these programs - people who don’t know what the community needs. 

Chattanooga’s municipal network offers a better solution. Chattanooga took the best aspects of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program and combined them with a deep understanding of community needs. An effective policy for providing affordable Internet access must be rooted in the community.

MN Coop to Rural Schools: Have A Gig, No Extra Charge

Minnesota's Paul Bunyan Communications' is bringing better connectivity to homes and businesses across northern rural Minnesota via fiber. The cooperative is also helping local school districts save precious dollars while obtaining the Internet access kids need for a 21st century education.

The cooperative recently announced it is now serving all schools in the GigaZone, the area served by its fiber network, and every school can upgrade to gigabit Internet services at no extra charge.

From the announcement:

"The GigaZone will provide the school districts Gigabit Internet speeds throughout the school day so educators and students alike can use the Internet faster and more efficiently. This upgrade is being provided at no extra charge so districts can stay within their budget and prepare their students for the future and the new technologies it will bring," said Steve Howard, Paul Bunyan Communications IT & Development Manager.

Recent studies reveal that rural schools grapple with high rates for Internet access, often because there is only one provider who takes advantage of their solo position. Paul Bunyan Communications is one of the many telecommunications cooperatives that serve rural regions that are owned by the people they serve. Like municipal networks, cooperatives typically display a concern for the community rather than maximizing profit.

Paul Bunyan is continuing to expand its current GigaZone coverage area. The coop now serves over 14,000 locations in rural Park Rapids, Lake George, Trout Lake Township east of Grand Rapids, most of Grand Rapids, and portions of Bemidji. The goal is to cover the 5,000 square mile service area now served by the cooperative.

Why Schools Need Big Bandwidth - Community Broadband Bits Episode 186

The St Vrain Valley School District, north of Denver and including the Longmont area, is transitioning from a shared gigabit network to dedicated 10 Gbps links for schools. Just what does it do with all that bandwidth? School District Chief Technology Officer Joe McBreen tells us this week in Community Broadband Bits podcast episode 186.

We talk about why the need for so much bandwidth and the incredible savings the school district has received from the municipal fiber network. Additionally, we discuss how self-provisioning would have been the second more cost-effective solution, far better than leasing lines from an existing provider.

Toward the end of our conversation, we touch on how students get access in their homes and what any business or manager needs to do to be successful, regardless of what industry he or she is in.
See our other stories about Longmont here.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Minnesota's Arrowhead Region Points to High-Speed Internet

Welcome to high-speed Internet on the Iron Range! This past fall, the Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) completed a multi-year project, a fiber optic network spanning nearly 1,000 miles, on Minnesota’s north shore.

The project, the Northeast Fiber Network, connects public buildings, such as health care facilities, community libraries, colleges and universities, tribal facilities, and government offices. The fiber provides the opportunity for next-generation connectivity in many unserved and underserved areas of eight counties: St. Louis, Cook, Lake, Pine, Itasca, Koochiching, Carlton, and Aitkin. It’s exciting to see this rural project finally come to fruition.

Institutional Network: Now to Go the Last Mile

It’s an institutional network, which means it brings high-speed Internet to community anchor institutions throughout the region. So far, about 320 public entities, including 31 school districts, have connected to the network. The network is designed to provide middle mile connectivity for community anchor institutions, not to bring connectivity to residents and businesses of the region. As with most federally funded projects, the plan is to provide middle mile infrastructure with the hope that the private sector will be more able or willing to invest in last mile connectivity.

That last mile, to homes and businesses, presents a challenge. NESC is leasing fiber to public and private providers and working to ensure that the network can serve as a backbone to greater connectivity. Actively working with private providers, NESC offers a bright future for unserved and underserved communities on the Iron Range.

Collaboration & Funding

Through a combination of grants and loans from federal programs, the project began about four years ago. The total cost came to about $43.5 million: 50 percent loans and 50 percent grants. The federal programs supporting the project were the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Rural Utility Service broadband loan program and the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  

Paul Brinkman, executive director of  NESC, described how the scope of this project would not have been possible without the collaboration of federal and local officials: 

“Although we have many people to thank for the success of this federal project, we are especially grateful for the spirit, dedication, and effort of USDA, elected officials, our board, our members, and our staff.” 

What’s Next for the Iron Range?

The completion of the network offers new opportunities for rural residents of Northeastern Minnesota to gain access to high-speed Internet. With the economy of the Iron Range in jeopardy, the network is a chance to improve economic development through next-generation technology.

Education Week Shines Light on Rural Schools' Plight

A recent series of in-depth articles from Education Week brings to light a persistent aspect of the digital divide: the lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity in rural schools. Throughout the country, schools struggle to pay exorbitant fees for aging copper networks. Teachers and students are cut off from digital learning opportunities as whole regions fall farther behind. Education Week brings these issues to the forefront - and community-owned institutional networks could be the answer.

The Education Week articles describes the harsh impact of these grim statistics. The nonprofit EducationSuperHighway found that for rural schools, the median price for connectivity is more than double that of urban or even suburban schools. Although the number of students without access to sufficient bandwidth has been cut in half since 2013, at least 21 million students do not have access to adequate connections. 

In extremely rural communities, large service providers do not have an incentive to build high-speed networks, and small private providers often cannot take on those high upfront costs. This leaves communities with no choice, but to pay skyrocketing rates for slow, unreliable Internet access over aging infrastructure.

East and West: Students Face Similar Challenges

The articles present two compelling case studies of Calhoun County, Mississippi, and Catron County, New Mexico, to tell the story of how high-speed connectivity is so often out-of-reach for rural schools.

Two schools in sparsely-populated western New Mexico split 22 Megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth for $3,700 per month. An increase to 50 Mbps wouldn’t require  new fiber, but the upgrade would cost an extra $1,003.47 each month. The local provider has a de facto monopoly in the region so the schools have no choice but to pay the going rate; with no competition they have no leverage for negotiating. According to the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority, monthly rates range from $1.35 to $3,780 for each Mbps of speed across the state.

In Calhoun County, the district is even worse off: 2,500 students share a 3 Mbps connection on a T1 copper line. Students can’t take state-mandated online tests or even perform online research. Teachers can’t access media or lesson plans, let alone enter attendance. For this nonfunctional connection, the district paid $9,275 each month.

After class, 17 year old Clemmie Jean Weddle describes her growing anxiety. She’s worried about falling behind students at neighboring schools, with whom she will soon be competing for a slot at Mississippi State University.

“I had those 15 pages, and they had the Internet at their fingertips,” she says.

In addition to losing out because Clemmie and her classmates didn't learn how to use the Internet for research, a significant amount of public dollars was spent inefficiently on poor quality telecommunications. With better, more affordable options, Clemmie's school could have redirected those same dollars toward classroom learning needs.

According to the Consortium for School Networking, more than half of rural districts reported that only one Internet provider operates in their area - which means no competition and high-prices. Now, the FCC is overhauling the E-rate program to empower schools to build their own networks. 

Community-Owned Networks: A Possible Solution

At MuniNetworks, we have collected stories on our Community Anchor Institutions page to draw attention to the ways local community networks save public dollars and bridge the urban/rural digital divide.

For instance, the schools in Ottawa, Kansas, save $3,000 a month for twice as much bandwidth they used to get. In Carroll County, Maryland, the school district saves $400,000 annually. In rural northern Georgia, schools have real-time virtual music collaborations; schools have live interactive science demonstrations online in rural southwest Georgia. These savings and opportunities would have been difficult, if not impossible, without community-owned networks.

Rural communities often do not have a large tax-base to draw upon to support school levies to afford the exorbitant rates that private carriers charge each year. But a community network is an investment that sometimes provides an opportunity to later expand from schools and other public buildings to bring connectivity to homes and businesses.

Improvement Is Not That Far Away

In the Education Week articles, the E-rate changes empowered Calhoun County, Mississippi. In February 2015, the county requested bids from private providers to either offer faster, cheaper service or to build a network the district could own or lease for itself. The possibility of competition - the possibility of a community network - the incumbent provider offered 1 Gbps for $600 a month per school building. The threat alone was enough to get better rates.


Image courtesy of Chris Carey, Pics for Learning.

"Fusion Splicing" to Light Up Village Network

Mahomet, Illinois, population 7,200, wanted to do something special to mark the official launch of its community fiber network. The network connects local public facilities as well as some area businesses. Instead of the old-fashioned ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Village held a very 21st century event in November to commemorate the occasion: a "fusion splicing" ceremony.

The local Mahomet Citizen described the proceedings:

With the press of a button, Acting Village President Sean Widener fused two strands of fiber about the width of a human hair. A computer screen showed the progress of the splice for the crowd, which included members of the Chamber of Commerce, elected officials and Mahomet-Seymour administrators.

It was an occasion that might otherwise call for a ribbon-cutting, “but in our industry, cutting is bad,” quipped Mark DeKeersgieter, executive director of the CIRBN.

A Collaborative Initiative

According to a press release, the network is a collaborative effort between the Village of Mahomet, the Mahomet-Seymour School District #3, and the Central Illinois Regional Network (CIRBN), a non-profit organization that operates a statewide fiber optic network in cooperation with the Illinois Century Network (ICN). The CIRBN connects more than 20 communities in Central Illinois with high-speed connectivity.

The Mahomet-Seymour school district initiated the first phase of the new network in 2013 when they connected area schools to the nearby CIRBN. In the next phase of the project, the Village extended the fiber network to reach other areas of the Village and provide gigabit service to businesses and other Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs). By the end of 2014, local hospitals, museums, and city government facilities also had gigabit connectivity. Village officials hope the network can eventually provide service to residents as well.

City leaders consider the project important to the community’s economic future:

“A reliable and affordable fiber-optic broadband network is important and fundamental for Mahomet to be competitive in our efforts to help drive economic development growth from new business attraction and to retain current businesses," Village of Mahomet Administrator Patrick Brown said. 

Saving

Connecting to CIRBN’s existing network allowed the Village of Mahomet and its schools to switch from an expensive private provider service contract. Mahomet-Seymour school district is getting ten times the bandwitdth while also saving $35,000 annually under the new agreement.

According to terms of the four year contract, the CIRBN will manage and maintain the network at a charge of just $1 per year. The school district and Village will retain ownership of the network. All told, the Village has spent about $300,000 on the project. 

Under the contract the CIRBN retains the right to choose either to provide Internet services over the network or to lease the lines to private entities. The CIRBN can also charge commercial customers a one-time infrastructure access fee. Proceeds from these fees will then be used for the purposes of expanding the infrastructure. 

Learning

Mahomet-Seymour school district Superintendent Rick Johnston also notes that the new community network’s core educational mission coincides with one of the CIRBN’s central objectives:

“The grant funding that started CIRBN targeted K-12 schools, so a child at school in Mahomet would have the same educational opportunities as children in large major metropolitan areas. Between our investment in the infrastructure and CIRBN’s gigabit Internet access, we have the foundation and are moving towards a 1:1 program where every student in grades 3 through 12 will have access to their own computer with internet access while at school.”

Going Faster, Farther, Safer

Prior to the installation and connection of the new network to the CIRBN, Mahomet already owned and used a limited amount of fiber optic infrastructure. The latest installation of this new fiber loop gives the Village redundancy over a larger geographic area and can carry the bandwith needed for faster speeds. The average speed for public facilities used to be about 20 Megabits per second (Mbps) but now is 250 Mbps. 

Mahomet Public Library Director Lynn Schmidt is trumpeting the impact of these upgrades for the quality of services she can deliver to the community:

“Since joining the Village of Mahomet and the Mahomet-Seymour School District in receiving internet services over fiber through CIRBN, Mahomet Public Library increased our internet speed fivefold, cut our monthly bill in half, and decreased downtime significantly. This allows us to better serve our community with fast, reliable internet access.”

Overall, the new network is fast, reliable, and affordable. The school district reduces connectivity costs while improving their curriculum, security procedures, and standardized testing. The Village is saving public dollars and increasing efficiencies.

“We’re going to be on a level playing field” with larger communities, [Acting Village President Sean] Widener said at the event.

Collaborating to Light Up Opportunities in New York

"We have fiber in the ground that is currently dark...It's a resource we have that other communities want," said Rochester, New York, Mayor Lovely Warren at a November press conference. The city is now working with Monroe County to take advantage of that dark fiber.

There are more than 360 miles of fiber under the ground serving public safety entities, suburban police and fire departments, libraries, schools, and public works facilities. In downtown Rochester, there is enough fiber to provide the redundancy that high tech companies need to establish operations. Over the past two decades, there have been several public works projects involving excavation. During those projects, crews installed fiber.

There are approximately 211,000 people living in Rochester, the county seat of Monroe County. The county is situated along the northwest border of the state, along Lake Ontario; about 750,000 people live there.

City and county officials estimate that more than 70 percent of the fiber network capacity is not being used. Local leaders are taking steps to change that. In November, the two entities released a joint request for proposals (RFP) seeking an expert to assess the current network and make recommendations on how to make the most of their investment.

At the press conference to announce the collaboration, Warren said:

The Rochester community is fortunate to have a substantial fiber optic network already in place. Very few cities have the advantage of this infrastructure in their city center. We need to be sure that its capacity is being used wisely and, ultimately, that this capacity is being used to help employers create more jobs. This fiber network gives Rochester a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting companies with high bandwidth needs and the jobs they bring with them.

According to Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and Warren, the city and county are hoping to work with private partners. At the press conference, they suggested leasing out capacity but they acknowledged that this is only the first step in a long process.