eSN Special Report: Built For Speed

It was true when you were growing up, and it will be true in the new era of the eSchool: If you want your schools to get ahead, you’re going to need good connections—literally.

In the age of the internet, having the right connections—in terms of modems, access lines, internet service providers, and more—can mean the difference between giving your schools the world and restricting them to your immediate neighborhood.

Of course, what constitutes the right connections for your schools depends on your specific circumstances.

The first thing to consider is how many computers you intend to connect to the internet. If you’re only trying to hook up a couple of computers in a single school, you could opt for several shared accounts using a dial-up service. If you’re connecting many schools running local area networks (LANs) with hundreds of computers, on the other hand, you’d do well by leasing one high-speed, dedicated internet connection. More on these in moment. (Terms printed in bold type are defined in the accompanying glossary.)

An individual school might start by providing one lab, the library, and a few classrooms with modem access, if there are adequate phone lines available. As you build local and community support for your technology program, it will be more efficient and cost-effective to create a campuswide area network with a dedicated connection to the internet than to keep adding modems in classrooms.

If you are going to connect dozens of computers to the network, you will need to make sure your line speed is adequate. A dedicated line with a capacity of 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) or higher is probably the minimum you’d want to consider for connecting a large number of computers. Such a line is what’s typically known as a T1 line.

Networking all computers campuswide via a wide area network (WAN) can be expensive. There are many options to consider, and you should consider using part of your eRate discount to hire a consultant to help you craft a sound technology plan that builds wisely over time.

For a lot more on lines and line speeds, see our list of links, below.

Your connectivity options

The dial-up method is one in which your computer’s analog modem dials your ISP’s analog modem. Then when you’re done, your modem hangs up.

Theoretically, you could establish a dial-up connection and leave it open as long as you want. But most ISPs won’t let you do this. They have other customers to serve and a limited number of modems at their end. Your ISP will simply kick you off if you’ve been online for a certain amount of time. By paying a little more, however, you can have dedicated dial-up service.

What this means is that your modem will still dial up your ISP’s computer, but once the connection is established, your ISP will do everything it can to keep that connection open round the clock. If static on the phone line inadvertently boots you off, your ISP will reestablish the connection automatically.

Whether dedicated or not, dial-up access over analog modems has its limits. First of all, it’s slow. And secondly, it’s slow. You just can’t get the kind of speed and stability you would get from a leased line— where blackouts are rarely a problem. With a leased line from your phone or cable company, you can have a direct connection to your service provider’s computers pretty much 24-7 (that means all the time).

Although over half of all schools (and 35 percent of districts) rely on analog modem access, a growing number are opting for speedier leased lines.

A leased line refers to any connection to the Digital Data Network, the digital switching system used by the telephone companies. ISDN, T1, frame relay, and all the other methods that fall under leased lines are digital networks. A digital network is necessary to support very high speed connections. You know how the sound you get from CDs is so much better than what you can get from a vinyl album? That’s the difference between analog and digital.

Analog modems

With an analog modem, you connect to the internet via the “plain old telephone service” (POTS). Analog modems will give you a top speed of 33.6 kbps only with a pristine connection, and it’s just about the limit of what’s possible on a phone line meant for voices. That’s because POTS has only 3.3 KHz of bandwidth. The limitation derives from POTS’ wiring. Unshielded twisted pair (UTP), a popular type of cabling that consists of two copper wires twisted around each other, is cheap and used extensively for local-area networks (LANs) and telephone connections. Wideband cabling—coaxial or fiber optic cables—offers higher bandwidth and better protection from interference, but copper is less expensive and easier to work with. Plus you’ve most likely already got it.

You can use POTS to get a single computer or a network on to the internet.

With a dial-up account you’ll connect using one of two communication protocols, PPP or SLIP, and your costs are minimal—a monthly service charge, usually around $19.95 a month, to an internet service provider.

The drawback of POTS lines is that they provide a slower, noisier connection to the internet. There isn’t much protection from line interference, which can give you garbled data or throw you off-line completely. And your speeds probably won’t exceed 33.6 Kbps, even with so-called 56 Kbps modems.

Also, it will become impractical to keep adding dial-up modems and multiple accounts to your school in order to support simultaneous users.


The digital version of the dial-up connection is called ISDN. You’re probably hearing a lot about this now because telephone companies are making great deals for ISDN lines to residential customers in big cities. With speeds somewhere between POTS and a T1 connection, ISDN can give you affordable, higher-speed access exceeding the maximum rates of analog modems.

ISDN stands for integrated services digital network, an international standard for sending voice, video, and data over digital telephone lines.

Most ISDN lines offered by telephone companies give you two lines at once, called B channels. You can use one B channel for voice and the other for data, or you can use both lines for data—which can give you a connection of around 128 Kbps. That’s four or five times the data rate provided by today’s fastest analog modems.

ISDN seems like the next logical step after analog, but there are some limitations. The 128 Kbps that you can get with an ISDN modem will probably seem sluggish very soon. The evolving web technologies—streaming video, real-time audio, wide-area videoconferencing, Java applets, etc.—are bandwidth-greedy, and the way technology is developing it looks unlikely that ISDN will get much faster.

ISDN may be a good choice for your home internet connection. Compared to 56 Kbps modems and digital subscriber lines, according to CNet, an online information service, ISDN gives you the most zip at a reasonable price.

Leased line options

A leased line is a permanent telephone connection between your computer and your carrier’s. Leased lines are used by schools and businesses also to connect geographically distant offices in a wide area network (WAN). Unlike a dial-up connection, a leased line is always active. It’s installed by the telephone company, and you pay a monthly rate for the line. The rate depends on how far your schools are from the provider and on the speed of the line. A dedicated (point-to-point) leased connection doesn’t carry anybody else’s communications and offers the highest quality line—at a price. A switched leased connection is a “shared” line, but you’re still getting a quality that analog can’t reproduce—for much less than you’d pay for a dedicated line.

Leased-line options include 56 Kbps, frame relay, switched multimegabit data service (SMDS), and T1 lines. A 56 Kbps line is probably adequate for the transmittal of text. But it won’t give you robust support for the graphic-rich environment of the internet.

Realistically, say the experts, you need about 256 Kbps for a single school or 1.5Mbps (T1) for a school district to make full use of the internet.

Some businesses also have a T3 connection, but the costs—upwards of $10,000 a month—probably prevent this from being a cost effective option for schools.

If you can afford it, a leased line offers great benefits with few drawbacks. Your rate of data transmittal (the “speed”) soars with leased lines, and you’ll never get a busy signal. True, sometimes your network will be jammed—and slow. Same with any connection to the internet, unfortunately.

Your speed is determined (in part) by the bandwidth of the line—those numbers we’re using followed by Kbps or Mbps. Typically, you pay for bandwidth. A leased line can be expensive, but it might be the most cost-effective option if your schools are going to be spending a significant amount of time on the internet.

Plus, rapid innovations are happening right now with cable and asymmetrical digital subscriber lines (ADSL), which promise to be cheap, powerful connections.

You’ll need to go to your local telephone company to find out about the leased line opportunities in your area. Be sure to go to a well-recognized company, experts advise, such as one of the Bells, Ameritech, MCI, AT&T, US WEST, or Sprint, and find out who’s got service centers closest to you.

One “hidden” cost of leasing a line is that you sometimes end up paying by the mile for the distance from your access points—the computers or LAN in your schools—to your ISP’s closest facility. It can add up, if you’re not careful.

A final note on leased lines: ask around about getting a package that bundles your telecommunications (leased line) charges with your access charges. Telecommunications companies often will offer a good combined rate on both your leased line and your internet service.

Frame relay

Frame relay may be a good choice if you’re not ready for the high-speed megabit environment—and its associated costs. Frame relay runs on a “switched,” or shared, network. It can be as fast as a T1 line. The advantage is that you can pay just for a certain speed that’s guaranteed—say, 256 Kbps—but your bandwidth can be increased—through “bursting”— if the network isn’t busy. So you can have the speed of the T1 line without having to pay for it.

For instance, the policy at Bell Atlantic Internet Solutions is to double your committed bandwidth if the network allows it, according to Dave Sperandeo, a Bell internet specialist. As long as the network isn’t overtaxed, your 256 Kbps line will be set to pump 512 Kbps speed—without an increase in your line charge. “Bursting” is a nifty way to increase your network efficiency, and you should be sure to ask if your ISP offers this service.

In addition, with frame-relay, upgrades to higher bandwidths are as easy as a phone call—you don’t need to change your wiring or your equipment. Remember, though, that frame-relay capacity maxes out at around 1.5mpbs.

Although many factors go into determining your costs, Sperandeo estimates that a district could pay $950-1,000 a month for frame-relay access.

T1 & FT1

T1 or Fractional T1 are better choices for districts looking to provide internet access across a wide-area network. That’s because you essentially have to “share” your bandwidth across your local area networks. T-1 lines are also a popular leased line option for businesses connecting to the internet and for internet service providers (ISPs) connecting to the internet backbone.

A dedicated T1 line supports data rates of 1.54 Mbps. It consists of 24 individual channels, each of which supports 64 Kbps. Each 64 Kbps channel can be configured to carry voice or data traffic. Some ISPs offer “fractional T1” (FT1) access, where you buy only some of these individual channels in 64K increments—128K, 256K, 384K, etc. Because fractional T1 uses essentially full T1 equipment, it isn’t the bargain you might think. Still, you may want to begin with a small fraction of a T1 line and work your way up as your users become more adept and you build community support for the expense.

You should expect to pay around $1,000 for the installation of a dedicated T1 line, and a monthly rate of upwards of $2,000. There may be additional charges, depending on the distance between your school and the provider’s local presence – a “mileage” charge. This can really add up, so you want to be sure to find out in advance how much you can expect to pay. And you might want to check out other alternatives, like SMDS.

Nobody, incidentally, knows what happened to T2.


SMDS should be one service that is especially attractive to schools. Providers of SMDS include Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, Bell South, GTE, Pacific Bell, and US WEST.

Because SMDS offers T1 speeds at switched network prices, the service is a popular one with schools. Bell Atlantic’s Sperandeo estimates that nearly 90 percent of his school customers are using SMDS for their internet connection.

Why? Because SMDS gives you the full 1.5 Mbps bandwidth of a T1 line, but you’re “sharing” it with other users. SMDS isn’t “mile-sensitive” like a point-to-point T1 line, either, so you pay the same monthly service charge whether you’re one mile or 50 from the ISP’s service point.

SMDS has the additional advantage of being upgraded in increments. Say you need more than the 1.5 Mbps you’re already getting with your T1 or SMDS service, but you don’t need the 45 Mbps of a T3 line (nor do you need the tens of thousands of dollars a month T3 speed could cost you). With SMDS, you can buy a 4, 10, 16, 25, or 34 Mbps line. The jump in cost from one level to the next isn’t as high as you might think, because you’re really paying for the base service. Bell Atlantic, Sperandeo said, charges about $5,000 a month for 4 Mbps, and only $7,000 for 10 Mbps – much more bandwidth than even the biggest school district should need.


Two newer methods of accessing the internet—cable and ADSL—are causing lots of excitement in the online community, because they both promise fast connections for little money—maybe for as little as $40 a month. These technologies aren’t available to everyone yet, but they’re worth a mention here.

The good news about these broadband modems is that they work on existing communications networks. There are two general types of broadband modems, one for each type of network. It’s not yet clear if one network or both will dominate the broadband communications.

On one side are the cable TV companies (cablecos). The cablecos are betting on cable modem access to the internet. This is particularly exciting to schools because more than 80 percent of all districts already are wired for cable, and almost all new schools being built today are being hardwired for cable. A recent study by Cable in the Classroom, in fact, shows that more individual classrooms are cable-ready than have phone lines for internet access.

Cable modems attach a computer to the coaxial-cable TV network. At much greater bandwidth than telephone lines, a cable modem can be used to achieve extremely fast access to the world wide web for about the same price as you’d normally pay for cable television service—somewhere around $40 a month.

And the cost of cable is expected to fall as economies of scale are realized, according to Andrew Faiola, who helped write the Cable in the Classroom study.

“Cable companies that are starting to experiment now certainly want to increase exposure as quickly as possible,” Faiola said. Faiola pointed out that at around $300, cable modems cost about as much as ISDN modems. “But you get much greater bandwidth with cable . . . if it’s available.” No doubt cable-ready schools will be able to get preferential pricing once service becomes more widely available.

Industry watchers spot a number of problems with cable, however. Cable TV was designed to broadcast TV signals in just one direction—from the cable TV company to people’s homes. The internet, however, is a two-way system where data also need to flow from the client to the server. Also, it is still unknown whether the cable TV networks can handle the traffic that would ensue if millions of users began using the system for internet access. Critics are also concerned about the infrastructure upgrades the telecommunications system will inevitably face when deploying these technologies on a mass scale. Reliability—long the bane of cable companies—is another valid concern.

Despite these problems, cable modems that offer speeds up to 2 Mbps are already available in many areas.


The telephone companies (TELCOs) and Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs), whose massive network of 600 million phone lines carries voice and data across the country, are betting on ADSL.

Like ISDN, ADSL uses standard phone lines to deliver high-speed data communications. But ADSL technology can deliver upstream (from your computer) speeds of 640 Kbps and downstream (to your computer) speeds of more than 6 Mbps. Even better, ADSL allows for simultaneous voice and data transmission.

ADSL is just one technology in a series of digital subscriber lines. For this reason, you’ll probably see the concept more commonly referred to as xDSL.

CNet predicts that initial xDSL systems will cost about $600 to $800 per month and will be targeted at businesses needing a constant connection to a remote office. It probably won’t be introduced for home use for at least another year, but school districts with remote buildings seem a likely target for pilot tests.

While neither ADSL nor cable modems are ready for widespread use, both types of modems are available. You can read more about the technologies involved in ADSL and cable in the article from BYTE magazine listed in Links.

Internet School Networking group in the User Services Area of the Internet Engineering Task Force

Consortium for School Networking

CNet report on ISDN

Dan Kegel’s ISDN page

Motorola’s Frame Relay Resources

SMDS Interest Group

David Gingold’s MIT Research Program for Communications Policy

CNet’s report on cable modems (product reviews and a listing of cable companies offering internet service

Byte’s article on ADSL

The Telechoice Report on xDSL Online

eSchool News Staff

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