Networking & Wireless

Network Speed: How Fast is Fast Enough?

Three years ago, SETDA published capacity targets for both external and internal connections. Have districts gotten up to speed?

Image of student tapping on a tablet, illustrating the need for wireless broadband in schools

When the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released "The Broadband Imperative" in 2012, the most attention-grabbing part of the 37-page report was a small box containing four numbers: minimum bandwidth targets for both external and internal connections. The report stated that by the 2014–2015 school year — this year — districts should have an external Internet connection to the service provider of at least 100 megabits per second for every thousand users. The target for the internal wide area network that connects the district offices and schools was at least a gigabit. The goals for the 2017–2018 school year were an order of magnitude higher.

According to Christine Fox, SETDA's director of educational leadership and research, to come up with those recommendations, a working group decided that capacity should support a 1-to-1 program where "students and teachers really wanted to work seamlessly without worrying about planning a lesson [and wondering] if everyone was going to have enough access to participate in a particular activity." SETDA's broadband numbers have since been adopted, endorsed and cited as a viable standard by districts, states and education organizations such as the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the federal Department of Education and even the White House.

To see whether SETDA's four famous numbers have become a reality in schools around the country, we asked district leaders how they have built capacity to meet their broadband needs both now and in the future.

Reality Meets Recommendations
Dysart Unified School District (AZ) recently completed a long-term project to make all of the schools in the entire 140-square-mile system capable of sustaining wireless inside and out. According to CIO John Andrews, that process began in 2010 when the district was able to apply E-rate funds to infrastructure upgrades at five schools. He has used bandwidth guidance from SETDA as a jumping off point in E-rate applications to help determine how much to request and "how much is enough."

The external connection at Dysart has grown from 400 Mbps to 4 Gbps over the years and is on track to be 10 Gbps in its next expansion. Only when that next iteration is in place will the district, with 26,000 students, actually meet the current SETDA target.

In the meantime, the WAN doesn't come close. With an average school size of 1,130 students, SETDA would recommend at least 1 Gbps for each school. And that's the goal that Dysart's IT department has set: to upgrade every single internal connection to a gig. But right now, the reality is that some schools within Dysart have 400 Mbps connections; others have 100 Mbps.

Is that sufficient? Andrews has found that every network-related improvement results in increased technology use in the classrooms. And despite the gap between the recommendations and real life, the network is just dandy. In fact, a recent "stress test," in which users attempted to bring the network down by simultaneously streaming video from TeacherTube and YouTube for Education, showed that, as Andrews reported, schools with internal connections of at least 400 Mbps experienced "zero issues with connectivity," and schools with 100 Mbps had "some slowness once they surpassed the 400 devices online."

4 Tips for Planning Your Broadband

CoSN's SEND Project Director Marie Bjerede offered this advice to calibrate your district's broadband strategy:

1. Get smart about investing in wiring and fiber, both of which are "incredibly expensive to install and incredibly cheap with respect to materials." Her guidance: "You absolutely want to get the highest capacity wiring within your building and within your WAN within your district."

2. Get your network topology right from the beginning. Some topologies are fragile, Bjerede said. "If there's a break in one place, then the whole district is out of commission."

3. When buying network hardware, compare the cost break points (10 Mbps v. 1 Gbps v. 10 Gbps v. 40 Gbps) against how long you expect that appliance to survive, how much you anticipate capacity demand to grow and how much you expect the price to drop over the lifetime of the gear. Then, she suggested, ask yourself, "Is it more cost-efficient to replace it in three years' time, even if you need it for seven?"

4. If your district isn't big enough to have access to professional network architects, engineers and designers to help you lay out your network plans, pursue an "aggregation strategy," such as joining a state education network or a buying consortium. It's "totally valid," Bjerede declared, "to decrease the cost of your Internet and devices by doing collective buying."

The results of the stress test don't concern Andrews much because he knows that the online assessments students are taking this spring won't be media-heavy. "We wanted to use ... this test to identify the limits of our current infrastructure," he said. "We are pretty confident that we will be able to address all the network needs for our upcoming online ... tests."

That said, network upgrades will continue apace. The holdup is money — or, rather, lack of it. "We are not a high 'free-and-reduced' district," Andrews noted. Because E-rate will now distribute funds based on the district's overall free-and-reduced lunch count instead of by school, he hopes to parlay the district's next E-rate windfall into an upgrade for those internal connections and a refresh of network equipment including switches and UPSes that are now covered as eligible Category 2 services.

Upgrade as Needed
St. Lucie Public Schools (FL), with 40,000 students, has been doubling its broadband connectivity just about every year for as long as wireless has been in place, said Information Technology Services Program Manager David Jasa. He said he expects that growth to continue. Like Dysart, however, St. Lucie's hasn't reached SETDA's recommendations. "It's not that we're behind," Jasa explained. "We have a network that supports us for today, and it's working and it's fine."

But possibly not for long. By law, Florida districts must devote at least half of their classroom instruction to the use of digital content by this fall. While the state encourages its districts to move in that direction, Jasa is hoping to go after E-rate funding to upgrade the network "from end to end" in time to sustain an infrastructure that will support not just digital curriculum, but other forms of cloud-based digital delivery.

As he pointed out, under the new format for E-rate, districts have a five-year cap with a pre-E-rate discount of $150 per student. "We think we're going to have to consume all of that in the coming year in order to install everything we need in order to support digital content, not only for next year but the four years beyond that," he said.

In preparation, IT has restructured its contract with its broadband carriers so that it can order the speeds it wants when the time comes. "The contracts we had before didn't even have 10 Gbps connections in them," Jasa said. "So we put an RFP out this year for our WAN, for example. In that we specifically state, 'You need to provide us with 10 gig speed,' so that we're not having to stop at the time of needing it and we don't have a contract or a price point that we can rely on. We're doing these things now to prepare."

The upgrade will require replacing 15-year-old fiber between the district and its schools to take advantage of the higher-speed switches it's also going to need. "When you have fiber that old, the design specifications weren't to the level that would support 10 Gbps, so in some cases we're having to replace fiber at the school level."

"What we have today serves today," Jasa acknowledged, adding, "We don't believe it will serve tomorrow."

What About WiFI?

The 2012 SETDA report mentioned nothing about wireless or WiFi network access. Why not? According to SETDA Director of Educational Leadership and Research Christine Fox, while everyone working on the report may have thought WiFi was important at that time, the broadband numbers were more critical. More recently, however, the organization examined the topic of WiFi in its Guide to Implementing Digital Learning. The guide doesn't provide hard numbers; instead, it poses a series of questions that puts the burden of calculation on individual district's IT teams.

In its SEND guidelines, CoSN also offers questions designed to help IT leaders calculate their own district's WiFi needs. However, the report does make specific design recommendations, which come down to this: aim to adapt the newest wireless standard and have one access point per classroom. According to SEND Project Director Marie Bjerede, "That will support essentially unlimited continual use by every student in that classroom."

Moore's Law Applies to Broadband Capacity, Too
Calling St. Lucie's broadband aspirations a "moving target," Jasa relies on specifications from various "trusted organizations" to guide the district's goals. In particular, he uses CoSN's Smart Education Networks by Design (SEND), which actually references the SETDA broadband benchmarks.

As SEND Project Director Marie Bjerede, who was also a reviewer of the SETDA report, observed, the numbers "sounded outrageous to people back then." Yet, she added, even the highest recommendations from SETDA are an order of magnitude less than what most of us have per user in our homes.

The saving grace for schools, Bjerede pointed out, is that "not everybody will be doing the same thing at the same time." So, she explained, if the guidance from SETDA and CoSN suggests 10 Gbps, which could be "very, very expensive," you could probably get away with half of that, because, for example, "While one class is using iPads for reading, another class might be using them to watch a video."

In general, Bjerede said, a variation of Moore's law applies to broadband capacity. "When you look at the aggregate numbers, which are pretty big across the board," she said, "it's 60 percent year-over-year growth." This means that districts should assume that "capacity demand is going to double every 18 months."

The best way to plan and build capacity for your own district, advised Bjerede, is to "observe for yourself how capacity is affected by different kinds of usage."

So how fast is fast enough? For Dysart's Andrews, the answer is easy: "If I don't get any calls every day from my users that they cannot connect to the Internet, I'm okay. That's fast enough."