School boards share fibre optic costs

Economies of scale and bandwidth needs have led a pair of school boards to begin what may be one of the largest deployments of fibre optics in Canada’s educational system.

Peel District School Board and the Dufferin-Peel

Catholic District School Board Thursday said they had engaged Oshawa, Ont.-based Cygnal Technologies Corp. and Hydro One Telecom to build the $3.6 million network, which is expected to be finished by November. The 1GB infrastructure will support approximately 200,000 students. Peel District School Board has 199 schools in Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga, Ont. The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board has 129 in the same locations, as well as Orangeville.

Jim Smith, controller of learning technology support services at Peel District School Board, said the partnership with the Catholic board came after consultations with not-for-profit Internet development corporation CANARIE to build a regional network with the two cities didn’t work out as expected. Hydro One tendered a joint bid with Enersource (formerly Hydro Mississauga), which was awarded last May.

“”We couldn’t have afforded it if it weren’t a joint project,”” he said. “”The cost of putting in a fibre network is really the cost of digging up streets and that kind of stuff.””

John Steele, general manager and CIO at Dufferen-Peel Catholic School Board, said proximity played a hand in the partnership. “”We’re across the street from each other, so we talk a lot,”” he said. “”Each of us wanted to go about building our own fibre-optic network, then we realized the cost was substantial, so we looked for someone who already had the infrastructure in place.””

Smith said many of the Peel board’s schools are still on ISDN service. “”They’re struggling to do the basics,”” he said. “”From an administrative view, to get good response on their business applications, and from a student point of view to get reasonable access to the Internet. Those things just aren’t happening well in many of our schools.””

Jim Taylor, president of Cygnal’s Data Network Solutions Group, said educational institutions like the Peel boards often find unexpected benefits from the fibre optic networks once they are in place. This includes potential savings from consolidating servers, which means IT staff don’t have to travel from school to school in order to perform upgrades.

“”It’s easier, I think to get funding in rural areas than it is in urban areas,”” he said. “”We’ve covered a lot of Ontario already . . . any funding that they go for, it has to be able to operate on its own. The government’s not interested in funding it for 30 years.””

Smith said the board is eyeing video over the Internet, voice-over-IP and distance education as potential applications, though nothing has been settled yet.

“”We certainly expect to see a lot of change, but we don’t know exactly what that change will be,”” he said. “”It takes time to implement. We’ve been at this two years already, we’ve got at least another year to go.””

Steele said improved Internet access could help better prepare students for the technology they will use in post-secondary institutions, and later in the workforce.

“”It’s becoming increasingly more challenging to satisfy all users, and students being included in that group,”” he said. “”Typically at home a lot of them have broadband access, and they expect at least that in the classroom. For us to give them that kind of speed, we have to have a huge mechanism.””

Taylor said some schools have already been connected to the network. Priority is being given to buildings that are easily accessible without having to approach local governments for zoning and permits to dig up streets.

“”An arial plant on a pole line is quicker and easier to install than going underground,”” he said.

More than 14,000 computers could be accessing the new network at any given time once it is implemented, Smith said.

Hydro One spokespeople could not be reached at press time.


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