Need for Speed: Wallingford schools expanding bandwidth
WALLINGFORD, Apr 19, 2012 (New Haven Register - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
A year ago, Wallingford schools had a common problem for the digital age: Six schools had serious bandwidth issues. Old, clogged pipes, if you will.
The solution was to move the six schools from T1 lines to Comcast's Metro Ethernet services.
Randy Backus, information technology director for Wallingford Public Schools, says his system is benefitting from the bigger data pipeline, and further expansion is almost a certainty -- given the moves to online testing and devices such as iPads for students.
"Years ago, when you were strictly doing ... a little Internet, maybe your emails, it wasn't a problem. But in the last couple of years, we've done a number of things, such as: Instead of having a central phone system over telephone lines, we're running our voice over the data network, as well."
Changes in computer software and applications are also huge. Until recently, if you had software, you installed it on your computer or your server in your building, Backus says.
"Things now are Web-based, with all this additional traffic going out of the building onto the Internet to sites where they're running the software for you."
Backus says the school system went from "adequate bandwidth" at 1.5 megabytes per second a while back (with AT&T) to something akin to "I-95 on the Q Bridge on a Friday afternoon in July at 5 o'clock -- not going anywhere very fast."
The other six schools were in better shape. Several years ago, Wallingford schools had received an infrastructure-related grant from the state that led to a high-speed fiber connection to six of its 12 buildings, with the state as Internet provider.
"The infrastructure grant was a fantastic initiative that helped us jump-start our comprehensive technology ... but when those funds ran out, we still had six remaining schools that were left with overtaxed T1 lines, which would have been cost-prohibitive to upgrade," says Backus.
Comcast sales rep Brian Mulligan says Wallingford's plight is the same as many school systems and small businesses today.
"It's like a straw, and you're trying to funnel 400 different things through that straw, with no capacity to increase the connectivity between the locations."
Comcast has upped its focus on business services, launching Comcast Business Services, launched in June 2010, and boasting 5,000 employees dedicated to business sales, operations, customer care and support, a $600 million capital investment in 2011.
Vertical Systems Group says the Ethernet services business topped $6 billion nationally in 2011, displacing T1 and other technologies. Comcast officials said they've been signing up major medical facilities, banks and colleges for the Ethernet services.
AT&T is also a broadband provider, noting on its website that, "The versatility of Ethernet can solve (the challenges of bandwidth and spread-out locations) by providing the ... on-time performance you demand while acting as the on-ramp to both the Internet and your IP VPN network."
Mulligan said Comcast provided Wallingford with a private, dedicated "fiber-based connection. ... Basically, they got 10 times the bandwidth (to 15 mbps) ... for the students to be able to do that online learning, have a better end-user experience."
More than 6,300 students throughout Wallingford can access homework assignments, performance-monitoring tools, reading and math tutorials, and other material 24/7, officials say.
"It could be as simple as watching a great educational video on YouTube in class or going out to an educational website for a lesson plan," Backus says.
Backus says bandwidth is an issue for everyone today, "not just in the educational environment, but the business world as well, even home users going from dial-up connections to DSL to cable connections."
The technology Comcast is providing isn't groundbreaking, but the opportunity is there for them to offer competitive pricing for the greater bandwidth because they were already running cable TV to the buildings.
"They already had what we call a 'point of entry,'" Backus says.
Another change? Prior versions of the school Ethernet had a separate server at each school. The current one uses software that allows for a central server.
Wallingford pays about $5,000 a month for the Comcast service, but gets 40 percent of that back through the federal E-Rate program. The result?
"What we're seeing is fewer complaints to the IT department that the network is too slow. In that time, we've added additional applications that are relying on the bandwidth. It's kind of win-win," says Backus.
Comcast provides the pipe, but Wallingford staffers manage the schools' network.
The controls at the school server (as Sheehan High) allow officials to filter out, for example, kids trying to watch March Madness games via the school data system, or other inappropriate things. "It doesn't take many of those to bring your network to a crawl," Backus says.
Comcast Regional Vice President Charlie Tzoumas says that with this product, "If their (Wallingford's) bandwidth needs change, we can actually turn it up on the fly'' -- even for a week if some standardized testing requires it.
The needs are only going to go up. Envision, says Mulligan, 1,000 students at a school "and they have hand-held devices where they're getting Internet access through the school's wireless access points. So take that on top of two or three computers per classroom, staff computers, doing Internet access, email, online learning, a whole host of applications. ... You have to be able to provide an improved end-user experience for students and faculty."
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