Tennessee's Schools Are Connected to the Internet at High-Speed

In order to get Internet access, many schools across the country have to suffer with a dial-up modem and ISP account. This often means extended start-up times, agonizingly slow connections and frustrating network drop-offs. Not content to just give individual schools a dial-up modem, Tennessee's ConnecTEN initiative is providing all of Tennessee's 1,560 elementary and secondary public schools with direct, high-speed connections to the Internet.

ConnecTEN is Governor Don Sundquist's initiative to give all of Tennessee's students direct Internet access by the end of the '96-'97 school year. In July, 1995, Governor Sundquist, State Education Commissioner Jane Walters, members of the Tennessee House and Senate Education Committees, state and local educators, BellSouth representatives and other corporate and business partners met to lay the foundation for this groundbreaking endeavor.

At press time, all schools except 50 had been connected. When completed, Tennessee will have the country's largest statewide computer network, with physical connections to more than 15,000 computers, or an average of about 10 per school. Note that these are ISDN and T-1 connections, capable of accessing information at speeds from four to 25 times faster than dial-up modems.

ConnecTEN seems to be a huge success, but it wasn't easy. There was a lot of planning and training that involved not only informing users how to handle hardware, but software as well. Sidney Owen, Information Officer with the State Department of Education, gives an inkling as to the scope of the project.

"Last summer, the Department of Education teamed up with the National Guard to provide facilities for training. They also assisted with computer installation and software demonstrations for more than 2,000 Tennessee educators," says Owen. About 200 local teams of educators were selected for specialized training and were instructed in using model lesson plans that employ the Internet to link up with other schools and students, utilizing the new technology to which they have access.

True State-of-the-Art

Tennessee's network system g'es beyond those of other states because schools have immediate access to the Internet through their own routers. All of the school routers, education county routers and county access points are connected through one of six regional hubs to a central server in Nashville that provides the gateway to the Internet.

Cisco routers make up the state portion of the network, including six regional hubs and county routers maintained by the Tennessee Information Infrastructure. The education portion of the network consists of approximately 1,500 Cabletron CyberSWITCHES connected from education county sites to individual schools with T-1 and ISDN lines.

To manage this huge, statewide network, Cabletron (Rochester, N.Y.) also provided the latest version of their SPECTRUM Enterprise Manager. SPECTRUM, used in the Education Network Operations Center in Nashville, is network management software that manages and monitors the entire education network. With this software, technicians can perform remote testing, monitoring and troubleshooting of school routers and can manage all devices in the network.

Cabletron not only provided hardware and software but was very active in the entire project, going "well beyond the scope and requirements of the contract," according to Al Ganier, Chief Executive Officer of Connect Tennessee Students and project manager. "Cabletron has more of a total system approach versus just selling hardware," he comments. "They provided a full-time person onsite to help throughout the entire project," he says, "and even loaned us lab services to help analyze putting together switches."

Giving Time, Saving Money

By focusing on connecting students, not just schools, Tennessee is close to reaching its goal of giving every student 2-3 hours of Internet-access time each week. Ganier calculates that a different strategy, say, using dial-up modems, would have provided each student with only about 2-3 minutes per week.

"This system will allow us to deliver [Internet access] time to students at about 1/8th the cost of dial-up modems," says Ganier. "We feel we got a tremendous savings over other strategies." Time is money and, in this case, more Internet-access time means more money in the bank.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.