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Longmont Schools Save, Increase Bandwidth With Help from LPC

Schools in Longmont recently began working with Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) to increase bandwidth, save money, and begin implementing a new technology plan. As part of the plan, every middle school student in Longmont was assigned an iPad mini this school year.

Jon Rice from the Longmont Compass alerted us to the program that takes advantage of the new 10 Gig wide area network. LPC installed the WAN this summer for the St. Vrain Valley School District. The network has a 20 Gbps ring and each school has an active 10 Gbps link with a second 10 Gbps ring for redundancy. The district's Chief Information Officer, Joe McBreen summed up the situation:

“We really needed to give ourselves some breathing room,” he said. The new LPC  “pipe,” he said, gave St. Vrain 10 times the bandwidth while saving $100,000 a year and allowing teaching and learning to be exponentially improved.

According to McBreen, bandwidth demands used to take up 80 - 90 percent of the district's bandwidth, but now only requires 5 percent on a typical day, even with the new devices.

Not long ago, LPC announced a new $49.95 per month gigabit service for residents and businesses. If customers sign up early, LPC guarantees the price for an extended period. The price remains the same at that residence, regardless of who owns the home. LPC expects to finish its current expansion work in 2017. 

In the short video below, School Board Member Paula Peairs notes that the district's savings on connectivity costs allows them to direct more funds to devices, staff training, and classes for students.

"The fact that the City has established that and built us the infrastructure to apply it is enormous. We have a community that supports that and really puts us in a unique position."

Matt Scheppers, Electrical Operations Manager at LPC, said of the utility's new service to the school:

"We are really excited to see what they do with it and we are going to accommodate them in the future; if they need more speed we will be able to provide that too. We're real excited about that opportunity." 

Video: 
See video

Rural Cooperative Launches Educational Network in Northern Georgia

There was some good news at the end of August in Georgia, just in time for the new school year: a fiber optic network spanning 3,600 miles and potentially tying together up to 330 schools with 10 gigabit connections was announced. Dubbed the “Education Exchange,” the network is the product of an agreement between the rural cooperative North Georgia Network (NGN), private cable provider ETC Communications, and a private fiber optic ISP and infrastructure company called Parker Fibernet. Each of these three carriers’ existing fiber optic assets will provide a piece of the network, and all are connected to each other and to the broader internet in Atlanta.

While formed through a partnership of cooperative and private providers, the network will be governed by the schools themselves, which are spread throughout 30 different counties and reach across the northern third of the state, from the western border with Alabama to the eastern border with South Carolina. Both public and private schools will be able to connect. 

The new network should allow schools to realize some significant cost savings from replacing phone lines with VOIP and dropping slower leased data connections. More interesting, however, are the educational and administrative applications of such fast direct connections: video conferencing for teachers and administrators between and within school districts; accessing bandwidth-intensive online educational materials; expanding access to wi-fi devices throughout schools; and pooling purchasing power of many districts to get discounts and expanded digital course content.

How each district and each school use the network will be up to them, but the possibilities are considerable. Some of the early schools that beta tested the network have already experimented by hosting real time virtual music collaborations between schools. Paul Belk, NGN’s CEO, described the motivations driving his cooperative to establish the network: 

“The strength of our communities, our economy, and workforce all starts in our schools...as a community-owned company, it’s our job to give back and use our resources to better the next generation.”

NGN has been connecting business parks, hospitals, government buildings and other anchor institutions in northern Georgia since it’s inception in 2007. It received a large boost in 2009 when it was chosen for a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant as part of the federal stimulus effort. With $33.5 million in federal funding, supplemented by nearly $10 million in additional state and local funding, NGN built out an 1,100 mile network in the hilly country north of Atlanta, bringing high speed connections to areas previously only reached by slow and unreliable DSL

Business, Education Call on Culver City to Invest in Muni Fiber in L.A. County

Last fall, Culver City hired a consultant to develop a design and business plan for a possible fiber network project. Recently, prominent business leaders and parents of local school children have publicly expressed their support for a municipal network.

Culver City, also known as "The Heart of Screenland" is situated in west L.A. County, surrounded primarily by the City of Los Angeles. Approximately 39,000 people live in this community that is beginning to draw in the tech industry. In addition to Disney's Maker Studios, Apple owns Culver City's Beats Electronic, known for high-tech headphones. Culver City wants to stay current to compete with Santa Monica, home to a number of tech businesses that connect to its publicly owned City Net.

The L.A. Weekly reports billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, owner of NantWorks, has encouraged city leaders to move forward with the project. His specific request is that five business districts be included in the network deployment. NantWorks, located in one of those districts, provides cloud-based operating systems to support telehealth. According to the article, Soon-Shiong is rallying other business leaders:

Soon-Shiong has been encouraging other business owners in the area to support the plan, which is expected to come before the City Council sometime in October.

"He feels this is key," said Mike Sitrick, a spokesman for Soon-Shiong. "He’s talked to various city officials and told them how important he thinks it is, not only to his business, but to attracting additional businesses to Culver City."

Local elected officials report positive feedback as the city reaches out to determine interest in the project:

"We're still attempting to gauge the degree of interest," said Councilman Andy Weissman, though he added, "I'm confident it's going to happen."

The business community is not the only sector in Culver City seeking better connectivity. The Front Page Online recently published an op-ed from the group United Parents of Culver City. Regarding Soon-Shiong's statement about the importance of the project, the President of the parents' organization writes:

We agree.

We will take it a step further: This is key to the future of our schools, too.

...

Parents interested in technology issues are well aware that bandwidth limitations have created problems in our district. Those problems only will grow worse as technology becomes more integrated in the classroom environment and as online testing becomes more prevalent.

Education SuperHighway Wants Better Broadband for Schools - Community Broadband Bits Episode #71

This week's podcast features an interview with Education SuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell to discuss how we can make sure all schools have the Internet access they need to succeed. Education SuperHighway has a plan for connecting all schools with a fiber connection while also decreasing the need for long term federal funding of school connectivity.

We talk about how this can be achieved, as well as the role local ownership can play in ensuring schools get the connectivity they need today and tomorrow without exploding their telecommunications budgets.

This is an important discussion as the FCC is taking comments on how the E-Rate program should be reformed. This is a handy PDF explaining how to submit comments to the FCC on this matter. Education SuperHighway has made a convincing case for its approach and we would encourage any comments that reinforce a preference for local, publicly owned networks as a smart solution.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 17 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Mudhoney for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Broadband for Schools and Libraries on the Agenda at Oct. 1 SHLB Event

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) will present a webcast via BroadbandUS.TV tomorrow, October 1. The event focuses on broadband in schools and libraries. The webcast, titled The Importance of High-Capacity Bandwidth for Schools and Libraries runs from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. ET. 

Presenters from schools, libraries, vendors, and broadband coalitions will address some of the issues most pressing for schools and libraries. The discussions provide a special emphasis on E-rate as the FCC reviews the program during the current Notice of Proposed Rule Making [PDF]:

Panel #1: How Can the E-rate Program Support High Capacity Broadband?

Panel #2: Wireless and Internal Connections; What Options Are Available to Bring Broadband into the Classroom and Out to the Community?

Panel #3: How can the E-rate Program be Strengthened for the Long-Term?

In addition to panel discussion, Tom Power, Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Telecommunications, Office of Science and Technology, Executive Office of the President, will speak.

Register here for the event. (There is a charge to attend whether in person or by stream.)

Community Network Services (CNS) Brings STEM Education and More to Rural Southwest Georgia

“With agriculture being the number one industry in the state, we are looking to inspire students to learn globally and live and produce locally. Agriculture and STEM education are a natural fit. With GPS-guided equipment and variable-rate irrigation and fertilizer applicators to better manage natural resources, education is key." These are the words of Beau Sherman, Regional Distant Learning and Video Coordinator for Education serving schools connected by Community Network Services (CNS) in Georgia.

CNS was formed in 1997 when several towns in rural southwest Georgia got together to form a public telecom utility. They started by connecting local schools and libraries with a fiber broadband network. While CNS has since grown into a full-service telecommunications provider - offering phone, video and internet access to business and residential customers - its impact on local education is a shining example of how community broadband networks can improve local education. CNS now serves 65 schools across 3,278 rural square miles including the cities of Cairo, Camilla, Moultrie, Pelham and Thomasville.

To help realize the network’s full educational potential, the school districts served by CNS teamed up to hire Beau Sherman. Mr. Sherman had long been a strong advocate for pushing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education in rural southwest Georgia. So he was the perfect fit for the role of helping the schools harness their new state-of-the-art broadband network.

One way Mr. Sherman is leveraging CNS’s high-speed fiber network is bringing live interactive science demonstrations into classrooms via Georgia Tech’s Direct 2 Discovery (D2D) program. With CNS and D2D, students in rural southwest Georgia enjoy live interactions with research scientists demonstrating principles of science in fields including astronomy, high-energy physics and nanotechnology. Students see in HD exactly what the scientists see and can ask questions as if they were all in the same room. Having worked with schools lacking high-speed fiber connectivity, Sherman attests that these two-way HD interactions would not be possible for his students without CNS’s fiber network.

Another way CNS is enabling new educational opportunities is by offering telepresence capabilities to a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program set to launch at Mitchell County High School in Camilla, Georgia. Telepresence will allow students to complete their practicum requirements with supervising instructors who cannot physically be in Camilla. Due to low numbers of medical professionals in rural areas, it is difficult to provide consistent supervision for medical training programs. But thanks to CNS’s high-speed fiber network, medical supervisors can be much more efficient with their time - treating patients in one town while training nursing students in another, without hours of driving in between.

Thanks to CNS and Beau Sherman, students in some of Georgia’s most rural stretches are enjoying high-tech educational opportunities available only through advanced broadband networks. And as we see time and time again, municipalities are very well suited to solve these problems locally with their own investments at a far lower cost than they would pay to lease inferior services.

First BTOP Project Connects Rural North Georgia Communities

Back in December, 2009, Vice President Biden travelled to Dawsonville, Georgia, to officially kick off the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) program. The first award, a grant of $33.5 million, went to the North Georgia Network Cooperative. The group combined that grant with local and state funding and in May, 2012, lit the North Georgia Network (NGN).

We spoke with Paul Belk, CEO of NGN, who shared the network's story and described how it is improving economic development while serving schools and government across the region. We also recently published a podcast interview with Paul Belk.

In 2007, Bruce Abraham was the Lumpkin County Development Authority President and could not recruit new business to the region. Atlanta is only 60 miles away but companies and entrepeneurs were not willing to branch out toward north Georgia. Business leaders repeatedly told Abraham they were not interested because of the lack of broadband. DSL was available from Windstream, but businesses kept telling Abraham, "That's not broadband." North Georgia was losing jobs and there was no strategy to replace them.

Abraham found economic development representatives from Forsyth, White, Union, and Dawson counties shared the same problem. With North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, the group decided to address the problem together.

In 2008, they received a OneGeorgia Authority BRIDGE grant. They used the $100,000 award to commission a feasibility study that suggested the area had potential as a new tech hub. The study also indicated that the region's traditional manufacturing and agricultural industries would continue to dwindle. The group, determined to pursue the establishment of a new tech economy, knew the first step would be next-generation infrastructure.

In 2009, two local electric cooperatives joined the group and it incorporated to become the nonprofit North Georgia Network Cooperative. With the addition of the Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Coops, the organization had access to technical expertise, equipment, and staff that could facilitate construction and operation of the future network.

Recovery Seal

Belk notes that the pieces fell into place for NGN throughout the process. The group applied for a grant during the first round of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The NGN Cooperative received a $33.5 million BTOP grant and an additional $2.5 million OneGeorgia Authority BRIDGE grant. Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain also invested, bringing the final cost to $42 million.

Mostly aerial, the 1,100 mile network went up quickly (PDF of the network map). Construction began in March 2011 and was finished that same fall. On May 2, 2012, the network was officially lit in Lumpkin County where construction had started, completing the ring.

Unlike most other BTOP projects, NGN provides some last mile connectivity for small and medium sized business. Habersham and Blue Ridge Mountain work directly with customers, who can purchase connections between 1-10 gig. The backbone allows 100 gig transport.

Belk notes that NGN changed economic development in several ways. Before the network, local businesses learned to get by with little or no reliance on local connectivity. Tax professionals used to store files and transactions on a laptop and then drive to another community with better connectivity because DSL was not reliable or fast enough to transfer files. He describes their method as a "courier service." The NGN Cooperative continues to reach out to small and medium sized businesses to encourage adoption and show them how the network can expand their reach.

Belk told us about JumpinGoat Coffee Roasters. In the past, this small business relied exclusively on sales through its physical storefront and most sales were during the tourist season. Now the company sells gourmet coffee all over the country all year long beause it has reliable and robust connectivity. JumpinGoat is only one example of how NGN brings more money into the community.

Recently, NGN announced it will provide connectivity to a new data center built by Boston-based Standard Colo, in Lumpkin County. The initial investment in the community will be $10 million and community leaders expect the total investment to be $70-83 million in five years. 

Georgia seal

The investment will create 10-12 high paying positions in a community where average wage is $10 per hour. In addition to increasing the tax base, Belk sees this as a first step in transforming the area into the tech hub envisioned in 2008.

NGN also contributes to the community's efforts to prepare students to fill future tech jobs. Before NGN, Lumpkin County Schools had 3 bonded DSL connections and less than 20 Mbps to the Internet - now the District has 1 gig and access to the 10 gig cloud at no extra charge. Eight school districts and three colleges connect with NGN. The cloud allows schools to scale back on expenses for equipment, such as servers and video encoders, because each district can share across the cloud rather than purchase equipment for each location.

Eventually, the schools hope to eliminate textbooks and use the cloud as depositories for learning materials. Belk sees the schools breaking out of the "island" approach to pool their buying power for better prices on virtual learning material licenses.

Kids are entering college better prepared, says Belk, in part because the University of North Georgia and other local colleges provide credit to high school students via distane learning. The community wants to create an environment where, throughout their school careers, kids learn with technology and acquire skils to take advantage of the booming tech hub. Parents in north Georgia want to keep their kids close to home.

In addition to schools and businesses, seven local governments and five major medical centers use the network for connectivity. Belk notes that most financial institutions in the region also connect to the NGN. Users work directly through the electric coops to connect.

NGN's serves as a backbone for multiple carriers, reducing rates, encouraging choice, and prompting better service in a region that was left behind by large incumbents. The price of DSL has dropped $10 since the network launched. Belk says Windstream, who would not invest in the region in 2007, is "building fiber like crazy."

Belk feels his region is in a good position now, thanks to the network. While he can point to value in enhanced educational opportunities, healthcare advances, and business development, he believes the community gained most by avoiding loss. Belk notes that, like the interstate highway build out that determined what small towns would survive, broadband infrastructure establishes winners and losers. If you don't offer it, some other community will.

Carroll County Public Network Changes Education, Saves School Funds

Carroll County is a bedroom community, with a variety of economies all around it. Washington, D.C., Camp David, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Fort Detrick, and the Aberdeen Proving Ground are a few of the places surrounding Carroll County. There is very little major transportation infrastructure and no major waterways. Many of the county's 167,000 people commute daily to jobs outside of the bullseye.

Gary Davis, Chief Information Officer at the Carroll County Public Schools (CCPS) and Chairman of the Carroll County Public Network (CCPN) started at the school district in 2002 and immediately recognized that the telecommunications arrangement was insufficient.

Schools and other facilities were connected to the hub via 1.5 Mbps T1 connections and the whole wide-area-network was connected to the Internet via an expensive Frame Relay DS3 connection. The total cost ran as high as $600,000 per year.  

When CCPS approached Verizon about increasing bandwidth, Verizon’s proposal was extremely cost-prohibitive. Verizon wanted a long-term commitment that resulted in more than 10 times their current costs. Basically, Verizon would own the network but capital costs would be funded by CCPS and maintained with ridiculously high recurring fees. The return on investment for Verizon was just too low owing the community demographics.

At that time, Davis met Robert Wack of the Westminster City Council and the two compared notes. Davis' vision for Carroll County Public Schools and Wack's ideas for Westminster and Carroll County were very similar. Both involved a high-speed network and Westminster is currently involved in its own municipal network project (to be covered in an upcoming post).

A 2003 feasibility study on telecommunications upgrades for the school and a second broader feasibility study for the entire county in 2005 resulted in a loose confederation between CCPS, Carroll County Government, Carroll Community College, and the Carroll County Public Library system. Davis is proud of the fact that the CCPN has broken through past silos. The public sector has worked together in Carroll County, preventing the rampant duplication of efforts that used to be the norm. 

Davis says the first focus was on improving educational opportunities with the network. The four entities were able to work together as the CCPN to secure better pricing by leveraging economies of scale. Carroll County applied $7.4 million from its capital project fund to get the project started, the original estimate in the 2005 feasibility study. CCPS also applied funds from its technology budget that had originally been earmarked for upgrades to phone switches.

Carroll County Schools Logo

Switching from the old telephone system to a VoIP system for the district's approximately 1,000 phone lines amounts to about 40% of today's savings at CCPS. Davis estimates annual savings to CCPS to be around $400,000, which also factors in costs associated with the network. Turning off old T1 connections and abandoning the pricey DS3 connection also contribute significantly to annual savings. Connections between district facilities now vary between 1 and 10 gigs.

Reducing spending is great, he says, but what really matters is the way the network improves the ability to educate. The old T1s and DS3 would not have been able to deliver the bandwidth for applications educators use today. For example, CCPS is experimenting by using the network to connect kids across the county who want to participate in Advanced Placement classes. These classes might not be offered otherwise because there may not be enough students at one location. In the pilot program, several students from schools across the county participate through video streaming, concentrating educator efforts and creating a more vibrant learning experience.

CCPS shares a 500 Mbps Internet connection with the local public library, ten times faster than the old DS3. The public library is also on a separate power grid, which makes it attractive as a secure back up data center for the school district, Carroll County Government, and Carroll Community College.

As the network has expanded, the CCPN has used a variety of funding. A state awarded BTOP grant, with matching funds from the county economic development fund, added to the original school district and county investment. Davis estimates that the county has invested about $12 million over the course of 10 years.

The network now consists of three rings with the fourth central ring in Westminster, the county seat. "Spokes" lead out to the southern end of the county, where community leaders hope to connect with Frederick or Baltimore County. Eight municipalities use the network's 110 miles of fiber over 450 square miles in Carroll County. There is one school in the northern part of the county that is not connected with fiber but uses high speed wireless supported by the fiber.

The network has changed education in Carroll County and done so with significant savings. Davis acknowledges that the change came about through the work of the CCPN Administration, which he describes as an ideal model. "Each member organization contributes its leaders' expertise and what all members CAN do together, they DO do together," says Davis.

For CCPS, the results speak for themselves.

Indianola City Owned Network Partners to Encourage Economic Development

“We want to grow our own new businesses in Indianola, and Simpson College is home to an entire group of potential entrepreneurs who we hope will find support for their efforts here and some day choose to locate their businesses here,” [Jerry Kelly, former Indianola mayor and executive director of the city's development association] said. ‘What we are doing is called ‘economic gardening.’ What grows here will stay here.”

Thanks to the Indianola Municipal Utilities (IMU) next-generation broadband network, the city and the college have fertile soil to nurture that garden. We previously wrote about this FTTH partnership here, explaining that the community owns the infrastructure and a local business provides services over the network.

The partnership between Simpson College, the Indianola Development Association, and IMU is called the Indianola + Simpson College Entrepeneurial Devopment Initiative. The student-business incubator will bring together students, mentors, and existing businesses with the hope that resulting entrepeneurships will sprout and grow in Indianola.

Through the partnership, the incubator will have access to IMU's server platforms, wholesale bandwidth, local marketing and outreach efforts, and customer service activities. 25 students will develop senior Capstone Projects through the initiative. College and city leaders anticipate that number will continue to grow.

Simpson College

The Simpson College News Center also writes that the project will be led by Chris Draper. Draper is associated with Des Moines' Startup City, a technology-based business incubator. Draper is CEO of the first graduate of Startup City, Meidh Tech, which offers property management technology solutions.

“By engaging students in real-world problems, allowing them to own their successes and responsibilities, they will begin to see that their classes actually feature lessons learned instead of paths to follow,” he said.  “While we expect that many students will grow their own jobs because of this program, and many of those jobs will remain in our communities, the greatest benefit that Simpson students will realize because of this program is that each day provides a lifetime of opportunity.”

Kevin Kirkpatrick from the Record Herald also talked to Draper, who acknowledged the critical role of local resources, including the network provided by IMU.

Because Iowa does not create barriers for local communities to invest in broadband infrastructure, programs like the Indianola + Simpson College Entrepeneurial Development can proliferate. More states need to take a similar approach and open the door for local communities to pursue economic development with the aid of local community owned networks.

A local news story discussing the project notes that Indianola connectivity is superior to that of Iowa capital Des Moines.

CNS In Southern Georgia Brings Communities Together

Step across the county line in Thomas County, Georgia and you will be in Florida. Its county seat, Thomasville, has been chosen as a one of the best places to retire. Thomasville's website is filled with pics of grand white pillared porches, rose gardens, and long winding paths lined with graceful oaks. It strikes me as a place to sit, sip a mint julep, and enjoy a passing breeze.

Appearances can be deceiving. Thomasville has been keeping up with the times by enhancing their fiber optic capabilities since 1995. While their project began as city investment, they are now part of a community network that serves several other local municipalities spanning several counties. The network brought services to an area the private providers had neglected.

The network began by connecting local schools, hospitals, and businesses, but quickly attracted residential subscribers. Within two years, neighboring Cairo (Grady County), Camilla (Mitchell County), and Moultrie (Colquitt County) joined Thomasville to create the collaborative development authority, now sometimes referred to as the South Georgia Governmental Services Authority. The purpose of the Authority was to expand Community Network Services (CNS) to reach more of the region in more ways. While each town benefits from connecting to the other three, they all maintain their own network as part of the CNS system. A few smaller towns in the area are also part of the network.

Past press releases record many instances of community, success, and positive use of their network. From the very beginning of CNS, it was apparent that the local leaders knew the community needed to act for itself. These words, spoken in 1997, have been echoed many times by the founders of municipal networks:

"Rural Georgia has been bypassed by technology for a long time," said Thomasville City Manager Tom Berry. "If we want economic development to occur here, we have to make sure the technology those businesses need is available."

A press release in 2001 described the local celebration as the first cable customers were hooked up to service in Moultrie. Clearly, the sense of community pride prevailed:

"I think the beauty of this thing is it's community owned," City Manager Tony Rojas said Tuesday. "I think we need to remember that's exactly why the city council went forward in issuing bonds and developing this latest technology or infrastructure for telecommunications was because the private sector was not providing that level of service our citizens are deserving of. Basically, because we're rural Georgia, they did not want to make that investment."

Over in Cairo, the enthusiasm for the network was apparent. In February, 2002:

CNS Cairo is proud to announce Ralphine Glenn and her daughter, Ja-Reese Miller, as the 1,000th CNS customers. The ongoing increase in the CNS customer base has not only benefited the community but the City as well. According to [City Manager Robert] Hopkins, "We are delighted at the way the community has supported CNS by becoming customers and giving us a vote of confidence in this new service." Currently, the City of Cairo is averaging at least 40 new customers a week.

In addition to connecting the local schools via fiber, CNS and its member communities have used the network for interactive distance learning to promote the importance of voting. CNS also teamed up with the Freedom Calls Foundation to offer free videoconferencing between service members in Iraq and their Georgia loved ones. There was even a time when a local high school teacher taught from home via videoconferencing while her injured leg healed.

Since its inception in 1997, CNS has continued to upgrade with a combination of fiber, digital cable television, telephone service, and wireless service. Through time, they have continued to improve the network offerings to the public. Currently, CNS is upgrading to improve it's reliability, increase bandwidth, and improve signal strength.