Friday, September 28, 2012

Bandwidth is vital to a school district's long-term technology plans

Internet connectivity is critical

Internet bandwidth is critical for every school.  Teachers depend on videos and files that they find, store, and share on the Internet.  When the Internet goes down, the school begins to grind to a halt.  The technology people in every district must maintain that connection to the outside world, and they must increase the amount of bandwidth on a regular basis.

What is driving demand?

Increased amounts of data is biggest cause - namely videos that have become an important part of the instructional process. Don't think about the 45 minute videos you had to watch in class.  These videos are short, specific, and highly engaging.  Teachers are showing 5-10 minutes as part of the lesson instead of using videos that take the entire class period.  

The shift to mobile devices in the last two or three years is also a big factor.  Students are bringing laptops, smart phones, tablets, and any other device that can connect to the Internet, and this is exactly what we want to happen - if your wireless network can handle it, that is.  Where I work, the high schools probably had less than 100 mobile devices brought in from home two years ago.  That number is over 1,000 per building today.  Elementary schools are feeling the biggest burden because they didn't foresee dozens or even hundreds of kids bringing in iPad and iTouch devices to school with them.  Kids and parents expect to get on the Internet when they come to school, and your wireless network and your bandwidth had better accommodate them.

How much is enough?

There are people who like to answer this question by saying things like, "You need 1.21 gigawatts of Internet per student if you are going to be successful."  I disagree with making a statement like that because gigawatt is a measure of energy, but at the same time how can you argue with anyone who can quote Back to the Future? I disagree because whatever number you set is going to be obsolete next year.  Instead of focusing on a number or ratio, look at what you have today and ask yourself, "Is this enough?"  Look at how much bandwidth you use on average during a really busy time of day.  Look at how much bandwidth you use when that usage spikes during your peak times.  If you are at maximum capacity - if you are not meeting demand - you need to double your bandwidth.  Double.  After you re-evaluate your situation once you have more bandwidth in place, you will likely have to double it again within the next year.  This will only get you to where you should have been all along.  How do you get ahead of the game?  You guessed it - you will need to double it.  Every time you propose an increase, you should be doubling your amount.  I think this will hold true until your district reaches 1GB of bandwidth. At that point, a new rule will probably need to be applied.

Our bandwidth over the last four years

In June 2010 our district had 50mbps of bandwidth to share among 2,000 employees and 12,500 students.  It was inadequate, but no one was really complaining.  YouTube was just hitting its stride in 2010, and 95% of our teachers weren't storing their data online, so it was not a serious problem.   But you could just tell it was going to be a major issue at any moment.  

We increased our bandwidth from 50 to 80 in August 2010.  In December 2010 we increased from 80 to 240.  In June 2012 we increased again from 240 to 340.  This December (2012) we plan to increase again from 340 to 640.  In July 2013 we will increase again from 640 to nearly 1GB.  We didn't quite follow the "double every year or two" rule because we were following a personal rule of mine - "keep your costs the same, but greatly improve what you offer".  Our 80mbps bandwidth in August 2010 cost $4,000 per month.  Our 240 mbps in December 2010 cost us just under $4,000 per month.  When we increase to 640 it will cost a little more than $4,000 per month.  When we hit 940 next summer, costs will dip down again to just under $4000 per month.  We have worked very hard to keep our costs constant, which is important to our school board, but at the same time we kept up with demand, which is important to our students and teachers.  

Bandwidth 2009 - 2013
ICN is the key to future for most Illinois school districts.  They have provided free bandwidth to schools for a long time, but they could not keep up with the demand of the last two years.  We were getting 40mbps for free from ICN.  When we needed more, they could not provide that for a low cost.  Thanks to a federal grant, lots of work, and the driving belief that schools need the Internet to do their core business of teaching students, ICN will be able to offer 10 times that amount for free starting July 1, 2013.   If you are planning to increase your bandwidth, contact ICN first to see how much you will get for free next year.


Keeping up with bandwidth demand is a technology department's highest priority.  Keep an eye on prices, shop around for the best provider, and do not sign a contract that is longer than two years unless you have the right to renegotiate it (i.e. get more bandwidth for the same price).  Every student and every adult will be bringing a device to school with them some day, and at the rate things are going, it will probably be in the next two years.

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