With a keen eye on emerging technologies, a consortium of Georgia school systems emerged with a $28.8 million award during the first year of the eRate.

The award to Atlanta’s Metropolitan Regional Educational Service Agency (MRESA) eclipses the total eRate awards given to schools and libraries in 34 different states. And it marks the regional agency as a national pioneer in the integration of technology into public education.

“What we are doing is looking at the future of education,” said Ed Kramer, the technology guru who spearheaded MRESA’s application. “The system that we’re installing takes into account that within the next five years, we expect there will be a laptop or desktop computer on every desk in every classroom. We have to be set to provide content to those classrooms and students. This is a system that will provide that functionally into the next century.”

The $28.8 million represents the largest chunk of the $77.8 million awarded to Georgia schools and libraries during the first year of the eRate.

Part of the reason for MRESA’s success is that the poorest schools received priority in the first round of awards. Kramer said the agency, which represents 14 metro Atlanta school systems, based its initial application on its 315 poorest schools, those eligible for subsidies amounting to 70 to 90 percent of the total project costs.

“It was our role to harness as much of this funding as possible for our school systems and use it,” he said.

The districts will match the $28.8 million with $4.7 million in local funds, Kramer said. The money will be used to connect all 315 schools, representing more than 200,000 students and nearly 12,000 teachers, to each other and the internet through an educational video distribution and conferencing system called MRESAnet 2000.

Once the first round of connections is completed this fall, Kramer said, a teacher or speaker in one class can be videoconferenced to classrooms all across the metro Atlanta area, or teachers from similar academic disciplines but different schools or systems can meet and interact electronically.

When finished, MRESAnet 2000 will offer the following benefits to the consortium’s schools:

1. Video on demand

Individual classes (and even computers) will be able to receive broadcast-quality video selections from one of several sources. The base server located in each school will stream 30 concurrent video streams through category-5 cabling; the maximum server capacity will be close to 450 concurrent streams. Original content may also be available through the internet for at-home viewing. Turner Educational/Time-Warner will provide its educational video libraries at no cost to MRESAnet 2000 as a launch for the system. Additional opportunities will include:

• Public broadcasting titles which are available and/or licensed for use

• Catalogs of titles from library systems and universities which are available and/or licensed for use

• By special agreement, satellite programming that MRESA now orders for broadcast to its districts may be archived and available for use

• Original school productions and school events will be available for use

2. Live programming

Special school and community events, lectures, and presentations will be broadcast live throughout the internet, or limited to individual schools or systems. This programming can be originated at any location on the network.

3. Live video teleconferencing

Speakers, meetings, and other educational opportunities will become readily accessible as broadcasts can be generated from any desktop on the intranet. Practical uses may include:

A speaker or panel discussion that allows questions from multiple classes, schools, and/or systems (virtual classrooms)

Multiple sources to host intra-class, school, or system-wide meetings or district-wide teleconferences

National or international teleconferences by utilizing the internet for additional communication sources

Emerging technologies

MRESAnet 2000 is being constructed through a three-year implementation plan. Another 192 schools, those eligible for subsidies of 50 percent to 70 percent, were the focus of the agency’s eRate applications for year two, Kramer said, and the remaining 150 schools in the 14 systems—those eligible for the least subsidies—will comprise the third-year applications.

“Using some of the additional funding available through the Georgia state lottery, we expect schools to be able to continue with the project” even if they don’t receive funding for internal connections in the next two years, Kramer said.

Kramer said lottery funds allocated for technology have given Georgia schools a head start over those in many other states. The eRate, he said, is enabling the state’s schools to cash in on that advantage.

“We are using emerging technologies,” he said. “A lot of what we proposed in our original application wasn’t possible when we put it in, but we were looking at current trends and believed it would be possible by the time the funding came through. We were lucky enough to be right.”

For example, Kramer said, when the agency originally discussed video streaming through category-5 cable, streaming technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now. But the hardware and software compression technologies have advanced to the point where the agency is able to implement its plan as envisioned, now that its application has been approved.

Another forward-looking step was for the agency to plan for just one category-5 drop in each classroom—the exact opposite of the current trend to install multiple drops in each classroom.

“It used to be that in order to have connectivity to 30 desktops, you needed 30 CAT-5 drops,” Kramer said. “But now, using ‘ramp’ technologies [such as infrared], one CAT-5 drop in each classroom can serve 30 machines.”

Kramer said the key was to design the system with a very open architecture in order to give it the maximum flexibility and versatility possible. “I felt the need to implement a system that would still be used 10 years from now,” he said.