With the seventh wave of funding commitments issued Feb. 3, Birmingham (Ala.) Public Schools became the largest single recipient of eRate funding to date. The district, which qualifies for an 81 percent discount on telecommunications services, was approved for $13,924,143.81 in funding.

“This is a wonderful day for the students of the Birmingham Public Schools,” said Superintendent Johnny E. Brown. “These dollars will ensure that our children have the same access to technology and the world of knowledge that children in wealthier districts have.”

The total cost of the projects that will be funded through the eRate is $17.2 million. The system’s share of the cost, about $3.3 million, will come from a variety of sources, including local dollars and federal Goals 2000 grants.

When the work is completed this summer, all 78 schools and every office in the 40,000-student district will be networked, with local area networks (LANs)inside each facility and a wide area network (WAN) connecting the buildings. All schools will get internet access, and a new system-wide, state-of-the-art telephone system will be installed as well.

“We’ve been waiting for this like everyone else—it’s been long in coming,” said Ken Wasmund, chief technology officer for the district. “We’re excited that we have it and we’re geared up to use it. This is going to take us from the 20th century to the 21st century almost overnight.”

Huge savings

Birmingham Public Schools submitted a single eRate application encompassing all the district’s requests, Wasmund said.

The district applied for discounts on telecommunications services and internal connections. Its internet service provider, the Alabama State Supercomputer Authority, is providing internet access free of charge, he said.

The district plans to run enhanced category 5 cable with drop points for internet access to each classroom and office—about 4,000 sites altogether—with a fiber backbone connecting the cabling to a central file server.

Each classroom will have a minimum of eight communication ports, five of which will be used right away—one for phone service, one for the teacher’s workstation, and three for student computers.

The total pre-discount cost for the district’s internal connections requests—which include the wiring, hubs and switches, file servers, networking software, and labor to create each LAN—is $12.3 million. Birmingham’s share: less than $3 million.

“There’s just no way we could do this project without the eRate,” Wasmund said.

Each building will be connected to the central district office via leased T1 lines, and the district office will be connected to the Alabama State Supercomputer Authority for internet access through a leased T3 line.

The data lines for the district’s WAN cost $70,000 per month, plus a one-time installation charge of $164,000. Because the lines are leased, they are eligible for discount as a telecommunications service. Birmingham schools will save an additional $800,000.

Part of the overall plan

While eRate dollars can be spent on the cabling, hardware, and software for networks, they cannot be spent on personal computers, printers, or instructional and application software. The district’s technology budget includes $2,150,000 to pay for items that are ineligible for eRate funds, including teacher training, Wasmund said.

The eRate projects are part of a four-year, $48,166,000 technology initiative, which includes $30 million from the state’s Capital Improvement Plan.

The first impact in the city’s public schools will be the addition of an internet access lab on each campus. The labs will contain workstations, printers, and scanners—complete multimedia set-ups dedicated to internet use, Wasmund said.

Each teacher also will gain use of a personal computer in the first phase of the initiative. The subsequent three phases will add three computers per classroom.

Work on the eRate projects will begin quickly, Wasmund said. In anticipation of the grant being awarded, the Birmingham Board of Education already has hired vendors and contractors to do the necessary electrical and infrastructure work.