At a recent eRate seminar in Colorado, Pat Sullivan fell to comparing her district’s internet-access speed with a contingent of colleagues from Silicon Valley. Sullivan, executive technology director from El Paso, Texas, let it slip that her schools have cable access to the internet.

“They were salivating at the mouth,” laughed Sullivan.

She has a right to be gleeful. The scorching speeds her school district achieves on those cable lines clock in at somewhere between 4 and 10 megs per second. That’s about 100 times faster than a residential telephone line.

And it’s not costing her a dime.

The El Paso Independent School District, together with two other El Paso school systems, are the first in TexasÐand only the seventh in the nationÐto receive free cable access from Time Warner’s Road Runner service. The El Paso Independent School District is the largest system in the city, with nearly 70,000 students in 83 buildings.

If industry watchers are right, cable could become the standard in accessing the internet for schools. More classrooms are wired for cable than for telephones, according to a recent study by Cable in the Classroom. To attract city contracts, cable vendors such as Time Warner are offering free cable internet access to public schools. Sullivan heard about the offer and began working to make it happen in El Paso.

El Paso was ready for cabled internet service because it had been chosen for another Time Warner project five years earlier. Extensive fiber optic cabling was laid around the city, Sullivan said, but the project for video on-demand bombed.

Residential cable internet service began in October in select homes. (Not surprisingly, Sullivan’s house was one of those beta sites.) Schools started using the service in January.

Four of El Paso’s high schoolsÐ El Paso High, Burges High, Irvin High, and Coronado HighÐaccess the internet on 25 workstations they were given free by Time Warner. Each of the other 77 schools is being supplied with five free workstations. Over the next three years, Sullivan expects to tether the rest of her schools to the cable network.

Sullivan says El Paso has suffered some setbacks as a result of the NAFTA Treaty and is struggling to retrain its workers for a high tech workplace.

“Our technology plan works in concert with city and county efforts in this regard,” she says. The district is beginning a Cisco Academy that will certify interested students in networking hardware and configurationsÐjobs skills that are in great demand in El Paso, according to Sullivan.

Sullivan, who was preparing her district’s eRate application when she spoke with eSchool News, says machines and modems are now her greatest need. There aren’t even computers in all of her classrooms.

But those she has are flying.

“It’s lightning fast. Just click and bam, everything is there,” Sullivan says. “It just makes it all happen.”

Up & running

Sullivan took the technology helm at El Paso Independent School District in July of 1997. Before that, she was director of technology at Socorro Independent School District, a smaller district, also in El Paso. A district re-organization had lumped together two departments that had been operating independently, and Sullivan was given jurisdiction over both the purchase and classroom use of technology.

Since then Sullivan has worked to get a strategic plan for technology written, reviewed, and approved. She helped persuade the school board to commit the resources necessary to install cable in every classroom for access to eMail and the web via a Wide Area Network.

This is the first year of Sullivan’s plan, and the district already has begun building the district hub and has an eMail server ready for all employees and students. The cable access allows wired schools to have video-conferencing as well. In the fall, high school students will be able to take postsecondary classes through the use of the two-way video technology.

To support the infrastructure, Sullivan says, a large staff-development session will be held for teachers over the summer. “The biggest challenges involve seeing that the teachers and students realize the full potential of what is being offered to them,” Sullivan says. She emphasizes that technical implementation as well as the staff development must progress together. “Support groups for all need to be ongoing.”<

Meep meep

Sullivan loves to cite the fact that, with cable, the entire text of Moby Dick can be downloaded in about four seconds.

Those speeds will slow down somewhat as the rest of El Paso plugs its computers into the cable. Data bandwidth is shared by users in individual homes, so performance varies depending on how many customers are actively using the system at any given time. But Road Runner guarantees a “worst-case” bandwidth exceeding that of ISDN service, and that worst case assumes continuous, maximal usage by every user in a neighborhood, simultaneously.

Other Road Runner sites are in San Diego, Calif.; Tampa Bay, Fla.; Oahu, Hawaii; Portland, Maine; Albany, Binghamton, Corning, Elmira, Norwich, Troy, and Saratoga, N.Y.; Akron, Canton, Columbus, and Youngstown, Ohio; and Memphis, Tenn.

El Paso Independent School District

http://www.elpaso.k12.tx.us/

Road Runner

http://www.pathfinder.com/rdrun/nav.html