Ont. school board stretches network over 71,000 sq. km.

In what is being called one of Canada’s largest wireless rollouts for education, a school board in northwestern Ontario is investing in a broadband wireless network intended to ramp up distance learning options for 7,000 students in 27 remote locations spread out over some 71,000 sq. km.

The

Keewatin-Patricia District School Board spent a one-time capital fee of $1 million for Redline Communications’ AN-50 broadband wireless solution, with operating costs projected to total $120,000 a year. The solution, representing a switch from the locally leased networks the board had previously used, provides the connectivity required to effectively deliver distance learning applications.

“”We do amazing things with it within the context of the school board operations,”” said Judi Green, manager of transportation and communication at the school board. “”We have video conference sites all over our board and we teach and instruct in our high schools using video conferencing technology. High schools that don’t have a certain course selection can still access the course via video conferencing.””

Another bonus, she added, is that the schools can tap into the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION) — one of the world’s largest optical research networks — for high-speed access to information provided by many educational facilities.

The market drivers pushing the school board to ultimately choose the Redline solution, which was implemented in just four months, were clear, said Green, adding that expensive tariff rates and severe bandwidth shortages had been hampering the boards distance learning initiatives.

Acknowledging the lack of funds to acquire more bandwidth, the board had decided to seek out other technologies. The wireless solution offered by Redline, it had determined, not only suited the board’s needs, but also cost $3 million less than comparable legacy products. And the 48 Mbps average bandwidth rate for the 22-link network exceeds the 1 Mbps average bandwidth rate for the old system.

The Keewatin-Patricia District School Board is now in the process of selling excess bandwidth, which is part of the initial plan to help it support the operational cost of the wireless network.

“”Education is under many constraints, and communications costs continue to rise,”” said Keith Doucet, vice-president of marketing and product management at Redline, based in Markham, Ont. “”Broadband wireless effectively fills the gap to provide school districts with the bandwidth and functionality they need while reducing capital and operating costs. It also enables them to explore more innovations in distance learning and other areas of education that were once restricted by the lack of bandwidth.””

According to Iain Grant, managing director of the SeaBoard Group in Montreal, it simply makes sense to invest in innovative technologies to aid distance learning.

“”It’s much cheaper to move around information than it is to move around kids,”” said Grant. “”If you have a teacher who is good at teaching auto mechanics or English or any other subject, you can’t move him around easily—but you can move the information around. Distance learning is a boon to (remote) places.””

Arguing that some schools in the Greater Toronto Area and in other urban settings would do themselves a favour by following the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board’s lead, Grant said schools have to start looking beyond bricks and mortar when it comes to dealing with inadequate budgets.

“”Schools face huge demands for resources,”” said Grant. “”They don’t have infinitely deep pockets. When you don’t have deep pockets, you have to be creative. A solution like Redline’s is making it happen.””

The Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, responsible for public education in northwestern Ontario, encompasses Kenora, Keewatin, Sioux Narrows, Vermilion Bay, Eagle River, Oxdrift, Dryden, Ignace, Sioux Lookout, Hudson, Ear Falls and Red Lake.

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