Virginia Leases Statewide DL Network

Virginia has been delivering, by satellite, distance learning to its residents for over a decade. It sprang from professional development roots, which have since spread into a fine tree of knowledge for high schoolers, college students, health care workers -- anyone wishing to improve their skills, and thus, their choices. The Commonwealth of Virginia University Digital Distance Education Network was prompted by business and industry needs. They pushed for widespread access to nationally rated graduate and doctoral engineering programs from two of the state's own institutions of higher learning. Now, every high school that wishes can receive courses, such as AP English, Calculus and U.S. History, at nearly 200 sites; MBA courses are offered at a dozen places; community colleges have full slates of baccalaureate courses and degree programs; teachers are delivered graduate education degree courses right at their own high schools; and hospitals, regional education centers and business/industry locations statewide receive a variety of programming. And the Graduate Engineering curriculum, now from four schools, has benefited some 5,000 students at 49 sites in 11 states. All of this has been delivered with an analog-based system. But in early 1995, lack of available satellite transponder time for evenings, at anything but a sky-high price (up 550% over the previous year), forced a change. Quick Change to Digital It was May and classes would begin in August. Normal acquisition methods were out of the question. Virginia quickly decided upon a turnkey system. They would lease a digital satellite network solution, including hardware, transponder time on a satellite, plus operations. Between May and September, a complete replacement system for part of the analog service was installed, including three Ku-band uplinks and 65 downlinks. COMSAT RSI, of Sterling, Va., owns and operates the digital network for the state, which signed up for a three-year lease. New uplinks went in at Old Dominion University, The University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. COMSAT chose to use Compression Labs' (CLI) Spectrum Saver video compression hardware, as it was both readily available and trusted. Spectrum Saver is at the heart of Indiana's statewide distance education network (IHETS), as well as Texas' (TI-IN). COMSAT also found and reserved the satellite, a GE Spacenet III with Eastern U.S. coverage. Finally, they sized the system to handle eight simultaneous channels; six are currently active. Choice Benefits Now, Virginia has two free-standing satellite distance learning systems. The new Ku-band digital network primarily serves the community colleges, business and higher education sites. The C-band analog system mainly serves the high schools, which did not have to convert because affordable analog time was found for the early part of the day. Dorothy Boland has managed the strategic and technical development of Virginia's distance learning network. She sees many benefits to the turnkey approach. First, the system provides continuity. "My frequencies stay the same; my channels stay the same. It's truly wonderful, that aspect," she says. "For 18 months, we were playing the 'sky shuffle,' which was very confusing for downlink sites." Of course, being able to affordably purchase the right chunks of transponder time was critical. With the leased network, scheduling time on the satellite was guaranteed, simplified and less likely to get "bumped." A huge plus is that COMSAT RSI itself runs the network. A remotely controlled Monitor & Control (M&C) system is installed at every uplink and every piece of equipment is connected. If any failures are detected, a redundant unit kicks in. The M&C also plays a role in remotely "changing channels." This translates to much less "operator error" at sites receiving programs. At the high schools, says Boland, anyone can be running a downlink -- a principal, librarian or maintenance person. In the digital network, the new downlinks are "locked down," automatically controlled and turned on and off by COMSAT. With an eye toward the future, Boland notes that the other real advantage to a leased turnkey system is that "we're not locked into anything." Virginia can buy the equipment at the end for a modest cost, then hang different encoders and decoders off it. "Or we can do something totally different. After all, who knows what the options will be in three years?"

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.