Bandwidth Quandary Looms for Districts

When Greg Blount looked at Internet access throughout the Merced City Elementary School District two years ago, he knew he didn’t have enough bandwidth. Every day, the network would clog, and students would wait as long as 10 minutes for their screens to refresh during online tests.

“We were bottlenecking every day where our network would grind to a halt because of legitimate usage,” says Blount, the district’s director of information services.

But when Comcast Corp. started laying fiber throughout the county for cable television service, Blount had an idea. He called the company and arranged for Comcast representatives to meet with the Merced city manager and county officials to discuss the possibility of installing gigabit fiber between all of Merced’s 18 schools.

In following the example of several other California school districts, including Monterey, Modesto, and Ventura, the Merced County office of education and its city school system teamed up with the Merced city and county governments on a $1.5 million project that laid three pairs of fiber between 17 schools and the district office.

The local government offices, which had fewer locations, piggybacked on the project, helping share the installation costs in return for new fiber, too.

Faster, Better Network

For Merced City School District, out went the old 2DS3 services, bundled T1 lines of the Digital Service 3 signal. The new fiber, with a data transfer rate of a gigabit per second, is equal to 1,000 megabits per second. In comparison, the old T1 lines had a data transfer rate of 1.5 megabit per second.

So, Merced’s bandwidth grew more than 600 times with each line of fiber, and in all but one school, they have three of them. The school district has replaced its legacy phone system with a Voice over Internet Protocol system. Antivirus and Windows updates for thousands of PCs are no longer a problem, either, and everything is backed up to a network addressable storage server. “We do it overnight now,” he says. “On T1s, you can’t do that.”

Blount is no longer worried about hiccups in Merced’s Internet service. “Now [teachers] can all see and present information to a classroom about cell growth or an exploding volcano or whatever and the infrastructure doesn’t get in the way,” Blount says. “This allowed us to make technology transparent. You don’t have to think about it when you have gigabit bandwidth underneath you. You’re not worried about what they’re doing to download.”

Looming Issue

More and more school districts nationwide may want to heed the Merced example, especially if bandwidth per student increases as much over the next five years as a recent study predicts.

The America’s Digital Schools 2006 study, conducted by the Hayes Connection and the Greaves Group, says the projected bandwidth per student in 2011 will be 9.6 Kbps, about three times as much as today’s figure of 2.9 Kbps, but just one-fourth of what media-rich Internet applications will require.

“If any other line item in a school district budget were to grow by 14 times over five years, and if the future costs were unknown and in most cases unfounded, it would be viewed as a crisis. Hence, we project that there will be a bandwidth crisis,” the study states.

Few if any schools have budgeted for the bandwidth increases, according to the study, partly because Internet usage is low today and there is a large gap between expectations for future usage and future bandwidth. School districts should budget significantly more money for external Internet access, roughly $2 per student per year, assuming DS-3 service is readily available, the study advises.

The study also states that the federal government’s $2.25 billion E-Rate program will be “very important” to help districts pay for bandwidth.

Planning for Growth

But Blount says Merced wanted to rely less on E-Rate, rather than more. The percentage of its students who qualified for a free or reduced lunch dropped in recent years by more than 10 percentage points, to about 70 percent, so the district was getting less E-Rate money. In addition, the funds could not be used for installing dark fiber (fiber that’s in the ground but not used) because no actual service was being provided by a telecom provider over those dormant lines.

“We were hoping to cut the E-Rate umbilical cord,” he says.

Still, he agrees with the study’s bandwidth estimates and believes that if the E-Rate program were to stop, costs for other schools would increase. “I could see there being a serious problem for school districts in 10 years if they don’t build the infrastructure,” Blount says.

Jerry Reininger, the director of information systems for Meridian Joint School District, which encompasses four different towns in Idaho and includes 32,000 students in 43 schools, agrees.

“If school districts get caught without planning for [the bandwidth requirements], yes, it will be a crisis,” he says. “They need to be planning how to make it scalable. They need to be planning now and making changes now.”

Reininger, who also serves as chair of the state of Idaho’s public education IT committee, recognized the looming bandwidth problem a year ago and sent out a request for proposal for a wide-area Ethernet for Meridian that could also handle VoIP.

As a result, Internet access speed for district schools has jumped from 10 megabits per second to 45 megabits per second, with the capability of increasing it to 50 mps or 60 mps based on demand.

“We looked at getting as much fiber into our buildings as we could, so as we get additional requests for bandwidth, we won’t have to go out and purchase more T1 or T3 lines; we have the fiber,” Reininger says. “If people wait too long and have to come up with additional dollars, it will be too expensive.”

Christopher Heun is a freelance writer based in New York City.