What Broadband Means for Schools

A couple of weeks ago I picked up the phone in my office and called our district’s network manager. Joe and I have seen just about everything you can imagine in the past few years when it comes to building networks. In just five years we have built our school networks here in Blue Valley that connect approximately 7,000 desktop computers and a district-owned, fiber optic wide area network that connects our district’s some 30 sites over 90 square miles. We’re a little numb at times. “Joe, do you think one 100 Mbs connection from us to the Internet would be sufficient?” “Yeah,” he responded in a deadpan manner, “that should do us for a while.”

Wow, how things have changed! Just five years ago, before we built our current networking infrastructure, our buildings were connected with a combination of 56 kbs and 9.6 kbs lines. Each school had a maximum of three dial-up Internet accounts, with blazing speeds of 14.4 kbs. When our local area networks and wide area network were put in place we leased our first T1 (1.55Mbs) for Internet access. A couple of years later we moved up to 4.5 Mbs and now we’re talking about 100 Mbs for Internet! And remember those 56 kbs and 9.6 kbs connections between buildings? They have been replaced with 1Gbs and 155 Mbs wide area network connections. Unthinkable.

What Broadband Means

Indeed, the era of extraordinarily high bandwidth networks is upon us. According to telecommunications industry analyst RHK, Inc., demand for network bandwidth will increase by 300 times in the coming eight to ten years. Much of what will drive this tremendous increase in bandwidth is high-speed connections to the Internet. The more high-speed connections are readily available to the Internet, the more content providers will offer media-rich content. Media-rich content is driving local and wide area networks to higher speeds. The era of “broadband” is upon us and it will have a profound effect on how we use the Internet at home, at work, and at school. It may also have a profound effect on how we think about our internal network infrastructure. For years we have heard of predictions of the convergence of computers, televisions, telephones, and radio. You have to look no farther than your local cable television or telephone companies to see that convergence is upon us.

The term “broadband” has its origins in the area of radio spectrum. In that context, broadband refers to use of a broad, or wide, spectrum of frequencies. In today’s world, however, broadband tends to take on a more generic definition. Essentially, it refers to very high bandwidth networking connections, especially Internet, both wired and wireless.

Some of you may have installed a cable modem (for example, Time Warner’s Road Runner) or some flavor of DSL (digital subscriber line) connection to your home for high-speed Internet access. These hard-wired technologies are typically referred to as broadband connections. Many schools and businesses are dropping older leased line connections to the Internet in favor of the newer, often cheaper broadband technologies. Broadband is not limited to copper or fiber connections, however. In the San Jose and San Francisco area, telecommunications giant Sprint is offering broadband wireless connections of about 1Mbs speed to residential and business customers. Broadband wireless will soon become widespread.

What It Means for Schools

Having a high-speed connection to the Internet is nice, but what does it mean for schools? First let’s look at some implications for teaching and learning. Also, let’s consider what you can be doing to ensure that your school is not left behind in the broadband revolution.

As mentioned earlier, broadband is allowing the convergence of computer communications, video, telephony, and even radio. (Let’s not forget that IP, Internet Protocol, based communications is a key enabling factor of convergence.) This convergence can be very efficient. With a broadband Internet connection a teacher can sit at her computer, search a Website for lesson plan ideas, preview a high-quality video clip that she plans to use the next day, carry on a telephone conversation with a colleague in another state (without long-distance charges), and listen to her favorite BBC radio broadcast, all at the same time and with all of the tasks done on the computer!

Another great place for broadband impact is the venerable video library. Most schools or districts have a video library of some sort. These may include a variety of instructional television programs, as well as videos licensed for educational use. While many schools still pull individual videotapes and play them in a VCR in the classroom, some have made heavy investments in media distribution systems. With broadband, the entire Internet becomes a media distribution system. Not only does that allow for searchable, on-demand access to video clips that support practically any unit of instruction you can imagine, it allows for more widespread access and without the technical headaches of a proprietary media retrieval system.

Of course, the entertainment industry is the first to tap in to the capabilities of broadband. All of the major news and entertainment providers already offer streaming audio and video from their Websites. Many have developed sections of their Websites just for broadband users. If the AOL-Time Warner merger is approved, this could have a profound effect on the widespread availability of broadband access and content.

As usual, education is just a bit behind the curve; however, we are already seeing some spiffy applications. Remember the Video Encyclopedia of the 20th Century? Remember all of those videodiscs? Now you can access those same high-quality videos via the Internet. And it’s available to all classrooms at the same time, with no more videodisc hassle. Think of any video or audio resource that you currently use and you can see a possible application for broadband. Even more powerful will be when those resources are enhanced with other dynamic Internet content. Broadband will be a boon to textbook, software, and other publishers of Internet content. Not only will it provide a new way to deliver existing content, with possibly more favorable cost models for schools, it will open the door for the development of new kinds of content and services for students and teachers.

The Benefits of Broadband

One new application that is already emerging with these very high-speed Internet connections is application service providers, or ASPs. Think of your favorite software application. Think of how difficult it is to get that application installed on several hundred or perhaps several thousand desktop computers of varying configurations. Now, think of how difficult it is to keep up with all of the updates and patches. This is a systems manager’s nightmare.

ASPs offer an alternative -- accessing those same applications that run today on a desktop computer or a network server via the Internet from a browser on your computer. With an ASP the school pays an annual per-user license fee and the software is always updated, always working, and always available. If you have been skeptical about ASPs, consider that Microsoft has said that its Microsoft.net service is a cornerstone of its future offerings. While there are still many reasons to be cautious about ASPs over-promising, the potential for providing more reliable access to applications to teachers and students, combined with potential to reduce support costs, makes this an application that is worth watching very closely. Broadband is making ASPs viable.

Another benefit of broadband and the convergence of media is the simplification of network infrastructure and management. When we began our network cabling plan in Blue Valley a little more than five years ago, we decided to build in a combination of twisted-pair copper, coaxial copper, and fiber in our schools. We wanted to make sure we had our bases covered, and we did. We have the capability to deliver computer network, video, and telephony services to virtually every usable space in a building. When we planned our wide area network a little more than three years ago, our thinking had evolved. We envisioned a day when computer, telephone, and video traffic would all travel over the same fiber and through the same network switches to their final destinations.

The benefit for schools here is that it eliminates the need for separate computer networks, telephone systems (PBXs -- private branch exchanges), and video distribution systems. Although it is a bit of an oversimplification, with converged networks all of the different data types are really nothing more than 1s and 0s speeding across your networks. With a well-designed system, the network switching electronics are intelligent enough to guarantee the proper quality of service for each data type and get the data to the proper destinations. Standard network servers provide file, application, voice, and video services. This type of converged service is not limited to traditional local or wide area network systems. Broadband will enable these converged services to be provided by a service provider to your school or district, allowing schools to concentrate on their core competency, teaching.

Broadband, along with the convergence of services, will demand that school and district networks be high-speed and reliable. Think back to the prediction that the demand for network bandwidth will increase 300 times in the next eight to ten years. That increase is being driven to a large extent by the convergence of services that is coming with broadband. Combine graphics-laden text documents with broadcast-quality video and telephony and your network demands can go through the roof.

Getting on the Bandwagon

Every school and every network is different, but I can offer four suggestions that have served our district well. First, you can never have too much bandwidth. Seriously, shoot for greater bandwidth than you think you could possibly use. Three years ago 155 Mbs wide area connections seemed almost outrageous to us. Now we have begun to upgrade to 1Gbs. Second, select only networking materials and equipment that meet industry and IEEE standards. Do not select proprietary items, no matter how convincing the sales pitch or how cheap. Third, insist on installations that are tested and certified at the speeds and quality of service you paid for. Paying a premium for high-quality electronics and materials is wasted if the installation is not done properly. If you do not have the staff expertise to verify certified test results, hire a third party who can. The previous two suggestions can dramatically reduce your Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). (For more about TCO, see Sara Fitzgerald’s article elsewhere in this issue.) Finally, expect and plan for upgrades. By designing a network infrastructure that can be scaled upward, you will come as close to future-proofing your network infrastructure as you can. By following these guidelines you will better ensure that your school or district will be able to take advantage of broadband services.

Working with your providers of telecommunications services is another important step in ensuring that your school will have broadband services available. While cable television and local telephone companies are the first providers that come to mind, most communities have several companies installing fiber in trenches and along utility poles. Those companies are installing massive amounts of fiber with the intent of competing head-to-head with the current service providers. Find out who the various providers are and learn their plans to cable the community. Often these companies are not covered by traditional franchise agreements that normally require service to schools, but they are usually eager to establish customers quickly and may be a good match for your school. Do your homework, be careful, and you may just get a sweet deal.

Broadband will completely change the way we think about Internet-based services. No longer will the Internet be the excruciatingly slow path to a wealth of valuable resources. Broadband is allowing the Internet to deliver on its long-awaited promise, especially with the convergence of services. With that convergence we will begin to see new media and services that will certainly affect our ability to provide quality educational experiences for students.

Bob Moore is Director of Information & Technology for the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, KS. Has worked in educational technology for 13 years, is a frequent presenter at national conferences, has authored several articles on educational technology, and is a member of the board of directors of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). He can be contacted at . Learn more about Blue Valley at .