By Kerry Herman and Heather Staker
In 2006, Education Week gave North Carolina a “D” on its report card for Internet access. The problem was not a lack of world-class Internet resources. North Carolina had a flagship network, the North Carolina Research and Education Network (NCREN), which provided fiber-optic infrastructure to many of the state’s higher education institutions. But K–12 public schools lagged behind. Fifteen percent of districts relied on wireless or copper connections for their wide area networks (WANs), instead of faster, more reliable, fiber-optic connectivity. Almost all the districts negotiated their own contracts with third-party Internet service providers, which often led to high rates, excessive overage fees, and latency issues. Rural areas particularly struggled because their sparse populations and rocky terrain created a shortage of supply of Internet service providers.
As the demand for online learning options grew and as the state sought to administer a standardized student information system over the Internet, the need for high-speed, reliable connectivity swelled.
Launching the Project
North Carolina’s General Assembly voted in 2006 to allocate $6 million as an initial investment in the North Carolina School Connectivity Initiative. A public-private team came together to launch the project, including experts from the state’s higher education system, state agencies, for-profit telecom providers, NCREN, and the K–12 sector. The legislature directed the project team to begin to expand broadband at schools, selectively build out networks to rural and underperforming schools, and develop a statewide model for scalable implementation.
Designing NC edNet
The team outlined a plan for a new public-school network architecture, which it called NC EdNet. The design called for a shared education backbone; the leveraging of existing core networks, such as NCREN; fiber-based WANs wherever possible; common service agreements with last- mile providers negotiated by the state; and a technical support bureau to help district network engineers. The team decided to make participation in the network and services voluntary.
The plan also envisioned an E-Rate* support bureau to help districts navigate the bureaucratic challenge of obtaining federal E-Rate discounts for telecommunications and Internet services, which districts had heretofore handled on their own with no support. In the years from 2002 to 2006, districts on average requested a total of $81 million per year in E-Rate monies, but only received 64 percent of these requests. The team hoped to improve this capture rate and streamline the application process.
The three-year implementation
By 2008, the General Assembly pledged a recurring line item of $12 million annually to fund the three-year implementation. The next year it allotted an additional $10 million per year, which brought the total to $22 million annually. The Connectivity Initiative planned for E-Rate funds to provide substantial revenue on top of the state funds.
Year one (FY2007–08) implementation activities included interconnecting local providers with the NC EdNet backbone, identifying districts to transition to NC EdNet, setting up the technical and E-Rate support bureaus, and completing a master plan to prioritize network development across schools. In year two (FY2008–09), the team continued to build out the NC EdNet backbone, focused on providing solutions for underserved districts, and continued extending fiber connectivity. Year three (FY2009–10) centered on finalizing the NC EdNet backbone and upgrading backbone capacity to support load.
By November 2009, only 6.5 percent of the approximately 2,400 schools in the state did not have fiber connecting them to their district WANs. In addition, all 115 public school districts now were connected to NCREN to access content and administrative applications from the state. Furthermore, 41 percent of districts also were using NCREN to access the public Internet.
As the project moved forward, the team grappled with the increasing demand for bandwidth, which was rising as fast as 20 percent per year or more at some districts. Districts that had adequate infrastructure by the end of year three were already finding that their systems were under stress.
* E-Rate, or the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, provides discounts to assist U.S. schools and libraries in obtaining affordable telecommunications and Internet access. The funding is administered by the Universal Service Administration Company under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission.