Paradise Valley USD Switches to Private WAN and Saves

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Better security, more predictable service, cost savings, and better uptime--all were reasons driving Paradise Valley Unified School District in Arizona to make a several-million-dollar switch to its own wireless wide-area network, in a year-long process beginning in mid-2006.

'Control of Our Own Destiny'
The district, the fourth-largest in Arizona, was using leased T-1 lines previously but encountered issues with network downtime, among other things. That was a paramount reason for the switch, according to Jeff Billings, director of technology for Paradise Valley USD, but there were others as well.

"We wanted more bandwidth," Billings said. "We [also] wanted more control of our own destiny. And we didn't want the infrastructure of the providers dictating when things were working."

Paradise Valley needed to connect 47 campuses, with buildings spread over 98 square miles of rolling Arizona terrain, and to do so economically. The district is located in the fast-growing northeast metropolitan Phoenix area, and the southern edges of neighboring Scottsdale. Data needs within the district included the ability for each campus to download several gigabytes worth of data daily, then transfer it back to the district Administration Center for storage.

Billings said he's reviewed a range of return-on-investment models for wireless implementations of the scope of Paradise Valley's; he said he's confident that the system will pay for itself in two to three years. The overall cost of the entire system, including equipment, installation, contractors, consultants, and training, was about $3.2 million.

Security and Legislative Issues
Another reason that the switch to a private network made sense, Billings said, is the potential loss in a few years of an Arizona law that affects how school districts handle increases in utility costs. That change, though it's still uncertain whether it will take place, would almost certainly introduce increase utility costs and add fiscal uncertainty to the district's budget. Doing away with paying a network provider eliminates that unknown for Paradise Valley. In addition, the district wanted increased bandwidth at its own rate, not in increments dictated by the provider. Anther plus in owning its own WAN: The district gained greater control of security by not sharing data over a public network.

The wireless network consists of gigabit Ethernet and fast Ethernet solutions from Ceragon Networks, purchased through CDW-G/NIC, to connect Paradise's elementary, middle and high schools to the central district administration center. High-capacity FibeAire IP-MAX units from Ceragon feed the campuses with high-speed 600 Mbps Ethernet connections to the high schools, and 100 Mbps full duplex to the middle and elementary school campuses. A 1.25 Gbps link connects the campuses to the district's central distribution center. Links in the wireless network were strategically placed to ensure uninterrupted connections between sites, using line-of-site studies. The links operate primarily at 18GHz and 23GHz frequency spectrums in transmitting data from existing systems within the district campuses.

Improved Services, Distributed Resources
The new network's bandwidth capabilities is allowing advanced multimedia uses like eLearning and IPTV, some of which the district has already introduced. Paradise Valley also plans to use the network for voice services, along with video and data. Routing voice traffic over the wireless network means that inter-campus voice calls can be made at no additional cost, adding to the long-term ROI of the project.

The same network will also allow for a single video database that can be controlled centrally but accessed anywhere within the district, thus creating a virtual library that will allow teachers and staff to share resources more easily.

Paradise Valley contracted with Network Infrastructure Corp. (NIC), a network technology planning and implementation company, for construction of the new network. Despite using outside contractors, Billings said that coordination with both the district's construction and utilities departments remained tight and well coordinated throughout the project.

"We always had one of our staff on site [during] any installation or configuration. One of our network engineers or staff was always present," Billings said. "We coordinated closely with our construction or facilities departments." A year and a half after installation, Billings said that he and his staff are now maintaining the network themselves without outside assistance.

The network is flexible enough to meet changing bandwidth needs for a district in which some areas are growing rapidly, while others are losing students. Through relatively inexpensive basic alterations, Billings said, "we can increase bandwidth three to four times with the Ceragon solution."

As an example of how staff are using the new system in new and cost-effective ways, Billings said that principals now communicate with district supervisors using audio/video chatting over Apple iChat, allowing several principals to participate in a call at once. The district is also doing plenty of IPTV and plans live broadcasting eventually, something it is piloting this year. Principals, for example, are beginning to conduct their morning broadcasts over IP, Billings said.

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About the author: Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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