Schools get ready for fast fibre networks

'Superloops' enable schools to maximise broadband use

The nation’s schools, along with its hospitals, are at the heart of the government’s plans to spend billions on fibre broadband networks in both the rural and urban areas.

However, fibre to schools is not a new thing. Just ask Jason MacDonald. He is the director of ICT services at Kristin School in Albany, Auckland, and a member of the NEAL Education Trust. NEAL is the Northern Education Access Loop — that was built by Vector in 2007, with a grant from the previous government of $4.5 million — and connects 45 schools.

His involvement in NEAL has led to MacDonald becoming an active member of user group called Superloop — an alliance of school or community-based fibre networks or ‘loops’ in Nelson, Christchurch, Hamilton and Wellington. What these loops have in common is they have all been built by lines or independent fibre companies and they all peer nationally — that is exchange internet traffic — using CityLink’s alternative peering network (alternative to Telecom and TelstraClear, that is).

MacDonald’s school Kristin, together with Christ’s College in Christchurch, was the first school to use KAREN — the national fibre network for research and tertiary education institutions. This led to Kristin becoming one of the first of 23 schools on NEN, a National Education Network overseen by the Ministry of Education. The trial was expanded this year to include up to 200 schools and provide them with unrestricted broadband at 100Mbit/s.

“The NEN is a concept with huge potential. In a way it is taking the regional initiatives that have occurred, some of what the regional schools have learned and apply that across the whole country,” says MacDonald.

MacDonald says NEN could become the basis of a collaborative network where schools are able to work on interconnectivity issues. Yet, he says, there are many unanswered questions about how it operates and he is concerned that decisions are being made — albeit with the best of intentions — that won’t achieve the right outcomes because users such as NEAL, and others in the Superloop collective, aren’t being consulted.

“I don’t know what the NEN of the future is yet, we don’t really know what is in that business case, which obviously the leaders of the regional groups would like to have a part in that,” he says. “It makes sense to have your lead users involved, especially if you are trying to innovate in a new space.”

For example, he has been told there is a NEN governance committee, but he doesn’t know who is on it.

“We are extremely positive and excited about what we’ve done regionally, but it is frustrating not seeing clarity at that level. I believe people are working hard on it, but does that reflect a relevance to the needs of today? It is happening now and it is moving fast.”

An area of particular interest for MacDonald is how service providers will connect to the new Ultra Fast Broadband network. A lot of end users aren’t too concerned about this aspect, but MacDonald’s experience with NEAL shows that understanding how ISPs operate is critical. When the schools in NEAL were first connected to fibre they had difficulty finding an ISP that was prepared to offer just layer three – and that didn’t want to clip the ticket on providing layer two (electronic) services.

For example, they spent 18 months talking with Telecom about how those schools in the telco’s School Zone product could participate, and in the end only a few of those Telecom customers have joined the NEAL network.

Eventually about a third of the 45 schools bandied together and now work with DTS, in an arrangement in which the schools only pay for the bandwidth they use – this means that over the Christmas holiday period the bill is almost nothing.

“What is the model of inteconnectivity? How do service providers connect into the UFB? This whole concept of peering, what does that look like in the UFB world? To me it is an unknown space.”

MacDonald says that creating a fast fibre network that benefit schools nationally, is like an ICT chain in which every link has to interconnect seamlessly. Although schools, and in particular private schools such as Kristin School, compete in the education space, it is over the delivery of teaching and learning, not how fast their download speeds are.

“The speed of your network is not a competitive advantage, it is how you use that network in our business. I believe schools are understanding that. We’re being successful. I don’t know the direction of the Ministry — will the Ministry fund things centrally or not, or will they provide guidance and direction?”

MacDonald says while fast connectivity — and he is agnostic about the technology as long as it delivers the speeds of fibre — is critical, any concerns or delays about its adoption hasn’t stopped schools embracing teaching and learning in ICT. Indeed, MacDonald says that this country is seen by many overseas as a leader. “When you travel overseas people are so interested in New Zealand because of the good stuff that’s happening educationally.”

Fibre networks also create the possibility of cloud computing for schools, something which MacDonald says is attractive to many on the NEAL network. “They don’t need the burden of keeping a small datacentre running — we would rather put that in the hands of the experts and focus on the value-add. Teaching and learning is not about building a server room and running it, and keeping it backed up. You need it, it is more of a commodity service of high value, but our time spent on that as schools is not necessarily best placed.”

Although the government has yet to confirm who it will partner with in the UFB, MacDonald says already service providers and integrators in the education sector are responding with investment in new solutions. Those companies that are investing now, will according to MacDonald, be the ones that fly.

“Are the incumbents in the existing telecommunications world going to be the ones moving forward or is it going to be tomorrow’s Trade Me that we don’t know about yet that’s going to come along and dominate the market?,” he asks.

“It is going to be interesting to see, it is going to be really exciting, and I think schools are going to get value from that.”

Govt’s broadband education initiatives

ICT Minister Steven Joyce has announced that government’s goal is that 97 percent of schools, covering 99.7 percent of students, will be on fibre in the next six years.

NEN – National Education Network – set up in 2008 with 23 schools, expanded in April to include up to 200 schools until at least June 2011.

UFB – Ultra Fast Broadband – as part of the $1.5 billion rollout, $37.5 million is being invested this year in the School Network Upgrade Project. By the end of 2011 more than a third of state and state-integrated schools’ networks will be ultra-fast broadband-capable.

The decision on who the government will partner with on the UFB is being carried out by Crown Fibre Holdings, who have announced a shortlist of 14 lines companies, fibre providers and Telecom. The decision is ultimately made by a committee of three Ministers – ICT Minister Steven Joyce, Commerce Minister Simon Power and Finance Minister Bill English. The Prime Minister John Key said in his opening statement to Parliament in February that the first fibre in the UFB will be in the ground by the end of the year.

RBI – Rural Broadband Initiative – Separately to the UFB, the RBI is a $300 million rollout that aims to connect 97 percent of schools to fibre, enabling speeds of at least 100Mbit/s, with the remaining three percent to achieve speeds of at least 10Mbit/s. The $300 million is made up of $48 million from the government and $252 million from an industry levy.

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Tags jason macdonaldneal education trustNetworking & Telecomms IDkristin school

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