Dan Markert
Executive Director of Information Systems and Instructional Support
Moorhead Area Public Schools

Since the advent of the E-rate program in 1996, districts have focused on equipping their school sites with internet bandwidth and reimbursement for telephone PBX and Cellular services. In Minnesota, Telecommunications Equity Aid has provided additional funding to aid schools in providing internet access to classrooms where E-rate has fallen short. In recent years, as E-rate funds have phased out reimbursement for voice services, funds have expanded to provide Category 2 dollars to allow more schools to purchase electronic network equipment such as firewalls, switches, wireless access points, and classroom and fiber optic cabling to help districts broaden internet access. Today E-rate boasts of internet access availability in 98% of all classrooms nationwide.

As the cost of internet bandwidth has continued to decline most districts have been able to achieve or exceed the newly recommended standard of 100 Kbps (Kilobits per second) of internet bandwidth for every user. This means a district with 1 Gbps (Gigabit per second) of internet bandwidth can provide 10,000 users uninterrupted internet bandwidth.

But as the availability of internet bandwidth continues to improve, schools must not forget to focus on other technology infrastructure needs, including robust wired and wireless network switching, building automation equipment, integrated security systems, and classroom instructional tools. Much of this does not qualify for e-Rate or telecommunciation funding, but it directly impacts organizational operations.

Building automation is the latest list of systems that are now dependent on a school building’s data network. Today’s school boilers, univents and VAV mechanical units all rely on passing BACnet communication protocols to monitor and maintain building temperatures. With the advent of LED lighting, more low voltage controls are now in place. Individual classrooms, corridors and large group gathering spaces are now their own zones, which can be managed remotely via the computer or tablet as the control systems are connected to the building’s data network.

Classroom telephones previously connected to the main office and occasionally allowed for limited off-campus analog calls. Presently VoIP (Voice over internet Protocol) handsets are leveraging SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) internet-based lines to provide classrooms with DID (direct-in-dial) phone number, voicemail, overhead paging and a myriad of other features all connected via an integrated app on the teacher’s assigned computer.

Recently districts have invested heavily in making schools more secure as life safety components are now part of all school technology planning. Interior and exterior entrance doors are now controlled by key card access systems that sync back to the district’s network directory services. Analog security cameras have been replaced by high resolution digital IP surveillance cameras, which function in high- and low-light situations and are smart enough to record only when movement is sensed. These cameras can be monitored and reviewed from nearly any device from anywhere in the world as long as the user has the correct login credentials.

Corridor and classroom paging speakers all connect to the building’s data network, making individual or clusters of classrooms and even district wide live or pre-recorded audio notifications possible. Lockdown panic buttons can be connected wherever a POE (Power-Over Ethernet) enabled network jack exists. These panic buttons can trigger door magnetic holds to release and lock, overhead doors to close, notification strobes to illuminate and pre-determined texts and emails to be sent.

Digital signage spread throughout school and district buildings are now typically interconnected via the data networks. Wall-mounted flat panel monitors are capable of providing patrons interactive wayfinding, relevant school and district information display, and live notifications as the need arises.

Classrooms continue to dominate with the sheer amount of visible networked technology. Today nearly all classrooms have ceiling- or wall-mounted projectors. Some districts have moved large flat panel displays and still other schools have created collaborative huddle areas within classrooms where additional wall-mounted monitors are available for student use. What is common among all districts is that teachers and students are able to connect to these devices via display cable or through wireless projection. Both projectors and large-format displays can be connected to data networks via wired and wireless means. Once connected to the data network, access for teachers and students can be controlled through various software methods. Some manufacturers have now released large-format touch displays that can function as their own stand-alone classroom computers.

With large numbers of low-powered tablets and portable computing devices now accessible within schools, classrooms need a dedicated wireless access point. These wireless access points need a centralized management system that can load balance users and bandwidth among neighboring classroom access points. The sheer number of access points and users connecting to those access points requires districts to invest in core routing and switching equipment that can segment, analyze and prioritize network traffic. This is the only way to ensure teachers can access the resources they need, without individual students gaming or watching online videos and hogging the most important technical resource — internet bandwidth.

And finally don’t forget to plan for redundancy. Does the district’s data network equipment connect through Uninterrupted Power Supplies? Do buildings have power generators to keep life safety systems online 24/7? Does core routing and switching equipment deploy redundant power supplies and supervisory cards? Are there failover firewalls and possibly internet filtering options. Has the network been designed to leverage multiple internet bandwidth providers? If the wide area network suffers a school site outage, are phone lines and other services disrupted?

As school districts become increasingly dependent on technology, internet and network redundancy will require an increasing amount of funding.

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