When Mark Root, manager of technology services for the Council of the Great City Schools, was asked in January to provide a model for other districts to follow when planning their technology infrastructure, he pointed to Milwaukee Public Schools.

“We’ve seen one district that was pulling eight category-5 cables to each classroom,” Root said. “Milwaukee’s approach–pulling one fiber optic line to each classroom–allows the district to do more and also save money. It’s a more efficient, more cost-effective solution.”

Two months later, Milwaukee is the envy of other urban districts–not only for its infrastructure plan, but also for its funding of the project. In what is believed to be the largest per-pupil award this year, the 103,000-student district received $23 million in federal eRate discounts to help defray the cost of its $80 million undertaking.

“To finally get the letter was exciting,” said Bob Nelson, director of technology for the district. “We weren’t surprised by the amount–we knew what to expect. We’ve spent three years ramping up toward this.”

Milwaukee Public Schools took the initiative to establish a single communications standard for its 156 buildings and 4,700 classrooms a few years ago, Nelson said.

“You’ve got to have a strategy for working your way through it,” Nelson said. “Our district is saying we’re not going to decentralize our network connectivity–this is much too important to leave to the schools themselves.”

High-fiber solution

Fiber optic cable consists of a bundle of glass or plastic threads, each of which is capable of transmitting analog or digital data. It allows for high-bandwidth transmission of voice, video, or data over the same communication lines.

According to Nelson, the district is putting a 12-port hub at the end of each fiber optic line. The hubs will serve as the connectivity point for voice, video, and data inside each of the classrooms.

“Doing [the wiring] once with fiber gives us one single transport, so it’s easier to maintain and has a better long-term cost,” Nelson said. “This will carry us for 10 years instead of having to go back and change [the infrastructure] every 18 months.”

Twelve high schools are currently wired according to the district’s ambitious standards, and overall about 1,500 elementary, middle, and high school classrooms are wired. With help from the eRate, the district will complete the wiring of 60 additional schools by the end of the year, Nelson said, and its goal is to finish all schools by December 2000.

The district also received funding to replace its analog telephone private branch exchange (PBX) switches with digital switches and to employ interactive video in a dozen more schools. Currently, nine Milwaukee schools use interactive video at the desktop or “conference room” level to support teaching and learning, Nelson said.

Interactive video is being used primarily to connect students with Milwaukee businesses and colleges for real-time school-to-work experiences, Nelson said. For example, students have participated in videoconferences with employees at St. Joseph’s Hospital to learn about the medical profession, and college students studying to become teachers have practiced their lessons on first-graders in the Milwaukee school system.

Composing a SONET

To support the transmission of voice, video, and data over the same network, the district has designed a wide area network capable of incredible speeds with fiber optic cable.

“We could bury a T1 line with data alone to one school,” Nelson said. “The challenge is getting all three pieces–voice, video, and data–over one pipeline.”

To meet the challenge, the district is constructing a three-tiered synchronous optical network (SONET) consisting of three core sites, 20 backbone sites, and about 130 “edge” sites. Each backbone site supports connectivity to about seven edge sites, Nelson said, which are mostly elementary schools.

SONET is a standard for connecting fiber optic networks that allows data streams at different rates to be “multiplexed,” or combined for transmission over a single line. The network’s configuration will allow speeds of up to 644 megabits per second (Mbps) to the core sites, 155 Mbps to the backbone sites, and 45 Mbps to the edge sites, Nelson said.

Within the SONET configuration, each school will have a “master closet” containing asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) switches to ensure the quality of transmissions, Nelson said. ATM equipment will ensure that “when kids see a person’s lips move on screen, the lips will be moving in synch with the sound,” he said.

The network is configured so that if there’s a cut in the fiber at any place, there’s a backup path–so a power failure won’t paralyze the network, Nelson said. “It’s important to have reliability in a network, so teachers know that if they have a lesson planned around the internet, they’ll be able to complete it,” he said.

To offset the cost of leasing its fiber optic lines and wide area network equipment from Ameritech, the district received more than $3 million in eRate discounts this year, Nelson said.

Milwaukee Public Schools