Believe it or not, not all schools are cashing in on the feds’ offer to subsidize their internet access. One school district in rural Illinois has chosen to disqualify itself for the eRate by becoming an internet service provider (ISP) for its community.

The Marshall (Ill.) Community Unit School District C-2 is providing high-speed internet access to more than 200 local residents and businesses. For $20 a month, users can dial in to the school district’s satellite network. Proceeds from the service make it a self-sustaining venture, said Paul Robinson, Marshall’s technology coordinator.

From rotary phones to satellite

Marshall serves a rural area of about 6,000 “out in the middle of nowhere,” said Robinson. Telecommunications capabilities are limited. Locals were still using rotary phones in 1995 when high school Principal Ken Reed saw a high-tech demonstration by Intellicom, a provider of two-way satellite internet access.

Intellicom was showing off the internet using satellite access out of a trailer. The traveling “classroom on wheels” media lab gave school officials the idea to provide cheap, high-speed access between Marshall’s four school buildings and out to the global internet and to provide home use to the community as a fund-raising mechanism.

For an up-front investment of $12,000, the district has so far seen net revenues of $5,500, said Superintendent Russel Ross.

“It’s no different from buying a case of hot dogs at the IGA and then selling them at the football club,” said Ross.

Quantum leap forward

In one year, 1995, Marshall purchased a two-way satellite system from Intellicom and outfitted every classroom in its high school and every media lab in the middle and elementary schools with computers. That year represented “a quantum leap forward for the school district,” says Marshall High School Principal Reed.

The network runs over two satellite dishes. In all but the K-2 building, every classroom is now equipped with a computer. Marshall is still purchasing desktops. With 1,400 students, the district hopes to achieve a 1:4 computer-to-student ratio by next fall.

Ross credits the network for helping Marshall to become a Model Technology Site for the state of Illinois in 1996. The district was one of only three systems outside of the Chicago area to be awarded that distinction.

And Ross gives credit to the school technology coordinator, Paul Robinson, who made it happen. Robinson worked with Intellicom, Cisco, and GTE to design and install the satellite system. The technology coordinator provides all system maintenance and customer service, Ross says.

“The guy is just a wizard.”

Dial-in satellite networking

Marshall began its technology initiative nine years ago with nearly $100,000 in state funds. The district was providing networking capabilities, news services, and automated library services well before they became everyday bywords in schools.

When it came time for internet access, the district could have tapped into the statewide network, said Robinson. But that meant crossing over the lines of several telecommunications companies-each of whom assessed a separate access fee. Dedicated internet access via T1 lines would have cost the district upwards of $2,000 a month just in access fees, Robinson said.

The Intellicom satellite network was set up to achieve the highest access speeds possible at the lowest cost. And it boasts some pretty nifty figures. The junior high school connects to the satellite dish at the high school using wireless “ethernet bridges.” The network achieves a T1 connectivity between the buildings-they’re about 300 feet apart-without wires.

The downlink speed, or how fast data are transferred from the satellite to desktop computers, is 2 Mbps. That’s about 30 percent faster than a standard high-speed T1 line.

The uplink (desktop to satellite dish) is only 64 Kbps. But, as Robinson pointed out, you’ve usually got “more stuff coming in than going out.”

Marshall is ideally suited for the school to act as a local entrepreneur. “For any school, particularly in a rural area where community is a little bit smaller and therefore people know each other a little bit better, it’s a great vehicle for schools to make money while still giving back to the community,” said Rains.

Marshall wanted to encourage all school employees to use the internet at home. So the district offered free access via the satellite to all school employees-not only to teachers, but also to janitors, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers, said Robinson.

Marshall Community Unit School District C-2