If you pooled the technology resources of city hall, the police department, local businesses, area hospitals, a university, and elementary and secondary schools of a single community, what would you have? Answer: The iNet gigabit ethernet of Monterey Bay, Calif.

Thanks to a rare collaboration among all the government agencies, schools, and other public entities in Monterey Bay, students, instructors, and other community members in this coastal city now enjoy internet connectivity at speeds more than 600 times faster than a T1 line can provide–and they enjoy it at just a fraction of the customary cost.

What makes the project uncommon is the degree of cooperation participants say exists among the city’s political, commercial, and educational institutions. Because they all share the same network infrastructure, they have been able to pool their resources and provide a high-quality technology program at a cost much lower than taxpayers would pay if they had used a traditional approach. Cutting costs even further, the city was able to negotiate a first-rate deal with its local cable company to lay fiber-optic cable for the network’s backbone.

Monterey Bay’s success could serve as a blueprint for other communities. But the process wasn’t without significant challenges, the most notable of which was getting everyone on board.

The citywide iNet was completed this spring, too late for most of the city’s K-12 schools and universities to take full advantage. But come fall, students and teachers in this seaside community will have a whole new world of learning opportunities at their disposal. These include prospects for research, collaboration, and distance education that would have scarcely been possible previously.

Public officials, meanwhile, will use the high-speed network–which allows for the rapid transfer of large amounts of text, audio, video, and voice traffic–to encourage greater participation by the community in its local government and to foster more partnerships between businesses and government agencies.

Fred Cohn, deputy city manager for Monterey Bay, is widely regarded as the visionary leader who spearheaded the iNet initiative. He said the project grew out of the city’s cable television franchising process.

iNet was created when Monterey Bay’s cable provider was rebuilding its subscriber infrastructure in the city using a hybrid of fiber-optic wire and coaxial cable, Cohn explained. “The city paid an additional cost to place additional fiber at our disposal. That became the institutional network, the iNet,” he said.

Cohn said the cable operator was a private company using public property to do business. So officials in Monterey Bay believed the public was entitled to something in return. The secret to the success of the network’s implementation, he said, was “treating the cable-franchising process as a strategic opportunity for the community, instead of just another contract.”

The iNet project was an effective and affordable way to support internet connectivity for the city’s institutions at a time when budgets were shrinking, he added. Before the network was installed, he said, the city’s government agencies operated on a mix of T1 lines, DSL or ISDN technology, dial-up connections, “and string with tin cans.”

Cohn said the city government, educational institutions, businesses, and nonprofit organizations in Monterey Bay chose to share in the network’s cost for “three major reasons.”

“The first was partner-to-partner communication and internal organizational communication,” he said. Second, “they did it for the economy of scale that the iNet offers. There’s a great business case to support this. … We’re getting gigabit connectivity basically at T1 prices.” Cohn suggests the savings amount to one-tenth of the total amalgamated cost of the earlier connectivity hodge-podge.

And finally, he concluded, “participants also did it for the opportunity to collaborate with the community on the internet connection.”

Sue Buske of the Buske Group, a telecommunications consulting firm that worked with the city on the renegotiation of its cable contract, said the fiber links more than 40 places in the city.

“The fiber creates a backbone [that] goes out into the neighborhood and is gathered into a black box, or node. From that node, coaxial cable goes the last several hundred feet into the home, or wherever. The only additional cost is the extra fiber to run from the node to the building,” Buske said.

Buske explained that the institutional network put in place was based on a “thorough needs assessment that took into account where the city would be going in the next 10 to 15 years–where do schools, libraries, government agencies need to go? How can connectivity be a part of that?”

Operating over Cisco Systems equipment, iNet allows video conferencing among facilities, and the city is launching a wireless initiative to extend network access to remote personnel as a way to improve productivity. City council meetings are now available on government-access TV, both live via broadcast and on-demand over the internet. Cohn said the meetings’ availability has increased community interest and heightened in-person attendance at council meetings. The network also has allowed Monterey Bay to implement a comprehensive disaster-recovery plan, involving off-site data backups, he said.

The network uses standard Cisco Catalyst 4006 and 3500 Series switches, 7200 Series routers, and Cisco Aironet 1200 Series wireless access points. Virtual Private Network, or VPN, technology was used to set up a virtual “fence” separating each entity, so data intended only for the city’s police department don’t end up in the hands of school administrators–and vice versa.

Leslie Buckalew, a spokeswoman for Cisco’s education industry marketing division, said the biggest challenge Cohn faced in implementing the infrastructure had nothing to do with hardware difficulties or infrastructure design. Cisco handled those matters and has been quickly forthcoming, according to Cohn, with technical support, updates, and meeting other technical needs.

Buckalew said the primary challenge consisted of establishing trust among all the parties in Monterey Bay. Cohn managed to sell the “leveraged relationship of a shared network that allows students to do real-time projects that serve the community,” she said. That feat was not so much a coup, she said, as an extension of the way the community traditionally has governed itself. “Monterey has a history of cooperation among its residents,” Buckalew explained.

Still, Monterey Bay faced several other challenges in working out the iNet deal, Cohn said. The first was negotiating the contract with the cable company. The second involved getting all of the partners lined up and committed. “There were a number of disparate individual organizations. We had to socialize the opportunities and get them to nod on it,” he said.

Yet another obstacle, Cohn said, was engineering a solution that supported collective requirements of the diverse partners involved. “Some partners are very small–10- to 12-person offices that can generally survive on DSL, at least in today’s environment,” he said. Cost, he said, was the motivating factor for all involved. The smaller organizations still saved money by pooling their resources with those of the others.

The use of a single service provider for an entire town might be expected to raise some eyebrows, but all those who spoke with eSchool News said there was no such controversy in Monterey Bay. According to the consensus view there, the cost savings quelled such concerns.

Gil Gonzales, chief information officer for California State University (CSU)-Monterey Bay, which provides on-site service for the Monterey Bay iNet system, said the consistency of dealing with a single service provider also allays much of the anxiety sometimes associated with major IT projects.

“One of the issues when working with Cisco is that everybody knows the same things. We don’t have to argue about widgets,” Gonzales said. “We can discuss everything about managing the system, security, everything–and everybody knows what everybody else is talking about.”

Because iNet went online near the close of the academic year, K-12 students in Monterey Bay will not be using the network until the beginning of the 2005-06 academic year. But there are 30 academic institutions in the Monterey Bay area, many of which already have begun to make use of the system. Those organizations include CSU-Monterey Bay, the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, and the Naval Postgraduate School.

Arlene Krebs, the director of wireless and distance learning technology for CSU-Monterey Bay, said the iNet system will help the university provide for historically underserved communities in adjacent communities–including migrant farm workers and minorities.

“Our wireless projects are community-based,” Krebs said. “We’ve got students doing field geology in Big Sur. We’re using wireless built with a wireless transmitter in a backpack. Students are doing field geology and taking real-time notes.”

She added, “We’ve also got a project that uses solar-powered wireless at Elkhorn Flew Research Reserve. Two years ago, we installed solar-powered wireless transmitters there. We are now doing virtual field trips with schoolchildren. We took students to visit Elkhorn Flew in real time and set crab traps. Then, a month later, we pulled the traps, and the students watched the event online.”

Christine M. Cermak, executive director of information resources for the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey Bay, said the iNet system “links organizations and permits some leveraging of resources that makes the Monterey Peninsula … an intellectually vital place. The collaboration that has occurred–in large part [owing] to the communications infrastructure–multiplies the effect of the individual institutions, so that the whole is greater than its parts.”

Cermak added, “The iNet backbone is the backbone for Internet2. We not only have better communications here throughout the community, but also greater access to the outside world. We can run high-speed research networks and collaborate with colleagues at other institutions.”

She said iNet enables a far greater degree of cooperation than otherwise would be possible between her organization and the four other military research facilities located in Monterey Bay: the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center, the Naval Research Laboratory West, the Defense Manpower Data Center, and the Defense Language Institute.

Across the country in Mystic, Conn., the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration, founded by explorer and discoverer of the Titanic, Robert Ballard, is also making use of the greater connectivity created by the iNet in Monterey Bay.

iNet, according to Tom Dudchik, director of the institute’s “Immersion Presents” program, makes use of robotics and communications technology to give students real-time access to expeditions taking place around the world. The program uses iNet’s gigabit connectivity to broadcast interactive “live dives” from underwater locations in Monterey Bay to students worldwide.

“I have a diver under water in a kelp forest 60 feet deep,” Dudchik said. “He has a mask on that enables him to talk to students and engage in two-way conversations with students via the internet.

“We also have a remotely operated vehicle [ROV] down there that can be used for educational purposes when a diver is not underwater. Students, teachers, and guests at Mystic Aquarium are able to pilot the ROV in real time,” he said. “All of that is because of what the city of Monterey did in building the iNet, in hooking the infrastructure up and maintaining it. It’s a really great infrastructure for us.”

Links:

City of Monterey Bay
http://www.monterey.org

Cisco Systems Inc.
http://www.cisco.com

Buske Group
http://www.buskegroup.com

California State University-Monterey Bay
http://csumb.edu

Naval Postgraduate School
http://www.nps.navy.mil

Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration
http://www.mysticaquarium.org