Government Internet of Things Learning

Giant Texas School System Makes a Giant Internet Commitment

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Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District’s new upgraded internet network will allow students to access the internet from their own devices (Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

The Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD), a public school system near Houston, is decidedly Texas-sized. It covers nearly 200 square miles. It includes 114,000 students, plus another 14,000 faculty and staff members. And the whole thing is spread across more than 100 distinct campuses.

But CFISD’s latest project lives up to the district’s grand scale. Back in 2014, its Chief Technology Officer, Frankie Jackson, recognized that the district’s internet network was hopelessly slow and convoluted. WiFi often failed to reach parts of buildings, and a narrow routing system meant that network failures in one small area could affect thousands of students district-wide.

So she and her staff created a long-range plan for a technology overhaul.

With help from corporate partners Ciena and Phonoscope LIGHTWAVE, CFISD is now updating its entire digital network to bring 100G broadband internet access to every square inch of its classrooms and offices.

The plan is a combination of the cutting edge and the cleverly simple. Technologies like heat mapping (determining where usage patterns are highest) will allow network builders to concentrate internet connection in the busiest parts of school buildings, and remote access points will bring the district’s WiFi into local neighborhoods during off-peak hours when the district uses less data, extending the school systems’ connections into the community it serves. At the same time, CFISD is also promoting a Bring Your Own Device program, allowing students to bring their own mobile technology to school and lowering technology costs for the district.

Steve Alexander, Chief Technology Officer at Ciena, believes that the most impressive and innovative aspect of CFISD’s network overhaul may be its very scale and power. “The type of equipment that [CFISD] put in place, in a school district – just a few years ago you would have said that’s only used in a national carrier,” Alexander says. But as network technology becomes more adaptive and less cost-prohibitive, building a massive network to ensure full carrying capacity is starting to make sense, even on a school district scale.

The CFISD network changes all spring from a desire to ensure instructional proficiency for teachers and students throughout the district. Neither students nor teachers want to abandon the connectivity they expect throughout the rest of their lives when they’re at school. Jackson and other administrators recognize that mobile tech, computing, and video learning are all having a larger and larger role in the classroom. The idea behind the new network was to build the infrastructure necessary to accommodate that change in education before the increased technology became too much for the network to handle.

Jackson believes that school districts too often adopt seductive tech items like laptops and tablets without appreciating the network requirements needed to properly support them. “School districts feel they can’t wait to buy devices when they’re starting one-to-one tutorial programs,” Jackson warns, “But then what they don’t take into consideration is that there’s this massive unseen foundation underneath. Districts are hitting a wall.”

Alexander agrees that strong networks are becoming an indispensable part of education. “Just like in the past when the school with the best woodshop would turn out the best carpenters and the guys who had the best auto shop graduated the best mechanics, I think you’re going to find the same kind of phenomenon here,” Alexander says. “If you put in the best infrastructure that enables these new technologies right from the get-go, that’s a pretty big economic advantage.”

Computer lab

CFISD faculty in front of newly connected laptops

But the advantages of a new network don’t come easily, quickly, or cheaply. The entire network upgrade cost just north of $90 million, or $792 per student, a price tag funded by the district’s $217 million Vision 2020 technology bond. Cypress Fairbanks first passed the technology update bond in 2014, and the wireless infrastructure will be up and running for the very first time at the beginning of this upcoming school year. Jackson says other school districts looking to accomplish similar network updates should expect a timetable of around two years for every 100,000 students.

Updating school networks will continue to challenge districts nationwide in coming years. The Obama administration’s ConnectED initiative, which was announced in 2013 and aims to bring high-speed wireless networks to 99% of American public school students, has made some progress in bridging the digital gap. Still, as of November 2015, only 53% of American students attended schools that met administration targets for internet connectivity.

At CFISD, where the network upgrade has gone smoothly, administrators see it as a major win. Jackson believes bringing wireless access to all 114,000 CFISD students might be the proudest accomplishment of her 30-year career. “To take that plan to our community and our Board of Trustees and get approval, and then, two years later, actually be able to deliver what we said we were going to do–on time, on budget, and exceeding their expectations–brings me greater joy than any other experience I’ve had in my career.”

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