When David Mabe first sat down at his desk as the new deputy executive director of the sprawling Northeast Texas Regional Education Telecommunications Network (NTRETN), a folder on his desk revealed his mission: to fix the wide area network that provided internet services to the entire region. NTRETN is a consortium of 51 school districts in Northeast Texas spanning more than 5,000 square miles, 150 campuses, and 150,000 students. Most of its member districts are very rural and lack many bandwidth options.

David spotted four significant problem areas:

  1. All of the districts were connected via T1 links, with only 1.5 Mbps of bandwidth to the entire district. Because of their rural location, service providers would not extend fiber to their areas. These were the very schools that would benefit the most from distance learning and other web-based learning applications, but they were hamstrung because of a lack of bandwidth.

  1. The DS3 link, a 45 Mbps link connecting districts located in the Dallas area to the Longview area, was costing an astronomical $150,000 each year because of long-distance charges.

  1. Several of the larger districts were discussing leaving the consortium to find services on their own. If the larger districts left, it would be catastrophic for the consortium because there wouldn’t be enough funding. Although the larger districts could find other solutions, the smaller, rural districts would be devastated. David pleaded with them to “please hang on” as he scrambled to find a solution.

  1. His staff worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, but network issues happened around the clock.

David is not a technology expert and had never built a wide area network, but he was not the kind of person to back down from a challenge. At the age of 16, he lost his left hand in an accident while working as a mechanic, changing his life forever. He quickly developed the mindset that he wanted to do everything “normally” and do it even better—creating a fiercely competitive drive in him. David would draw from that tenacity over the next 15 months as he ventured to be the first regional consortium in Texas to deploy a wireless broadband wide area network.

The project would require coordinating 46 school boards, 46 superintendents, 46 technology directors, and 46 facilities managers located across the region. (At the start of the project there were 46 districts; five additional districts have since joined the consortium.) The first order of business would be to convince these leaders of his vision. “There were political issues we needed to overcome, and at times the process was agonizing,” he said.

From acquisition to implementation

After looking at many possible solutions from a variety of vendors, David decided to hire Trillion Partners Inc., located in Austin, Texas, to provide the point-to-point wireless wide area network to connect his 51 school districts. The network would provide a 10 to 100 Mbps connection to each district in the consortium, offering them 10 percent to 100 percent more bandwidth than they had previously. The network also would support Quality of Service (QoS), enabling it to deliver high-quality voice and video—something the previous network could not do. Because NTRETN was taking charge as a single customer, long-distance fees no longer applied, saving more than $150,000 each year. NTRETN was able to take advantage of the eRate program to further reduce its costs.

The project, which involved the construction of 81 point-to-point wireless links, was handled in two phases and took only nine months to complete. With the project completed, the new high-speed network enabled administrators, educators, and students to better use technology and greatly enhanced the educational process.

David understandably talks with pride about the network. “The network has had a significant impact on the curriculum taught in our schools today,” he says. “For example, all model lessons of our curriculum project now have unitedstreaming [a video-on-demand service from Discovery Education] embedded in them. Many of our districts have gone to web-based student information systems and are taking advantage of distance learning and even taking virtual field trips. This would have been impossible with the previous network.”

Video conferencing saves time and money

Thanks to its new network, NTRETN also is offering video conferencing services to its member districts, saving time and money throughout the region. For example, NTRETN recently trained district IT directors on its content filtering and bandwidth shaping applications. Instead of 51 IT directors losing a day of work to travel to Mt. Pleasant for the training, they attended the two-hour training via video conference. Those who could not make the training can watch the recorded version. This is just one of many examples of how video conferencing is being used throughout the region.

VoIP service brings advanced telephony to districts

Last year, David again partnered with Trillion to offer Voice over IP (VoIP) services to his member school districts. Ten of the districts have taken advantage of the service, and he expects many more districts to join this year.

“Many of our districts had antiquated phone systems, and inter-district calls incurred long-distance charges,” he says. “Because the VoIP service is Priority One eRate-eligible, districts are receiving a solid telephone service at a very low price. Our districts can communicate better internally with applications such as unified messaging and Follow Me/Find Me. There is an additional cost savings, because member districts can make intra-WAN calls without incurring long-distance fees.”

Extending his team and its resources

David was able to solve his staffing issue by teaming up with his service provider, Trillion Partners. Trillion provides 24-by-7 monitoring and management of the WAN and VoIP services. “They have taken us out of the network business so we can focus on serving our schools—what we’re best at,” he says.

David is a big believer in the “power of the consortium.” In 2002 he created a Purchasing Co-op that now enables districts in four states to purchase commodity items such as PCs, servers, and switches at a steep discount. The Purchasing Co-op has attracted more than 800 schools, which gives it tremendous purchasing power. “I get so excited when I see that a small district such as Marietta, with only 50 kids, can get the same discount as a big school in Houston with 5,000 kids,” he says.

Some people talk about making a difference. Other people do it. David Mabe doesn’t back down from a challenge. Because of his drive and determination, his team’s projects have completely transformed the learning environment for 51 Texas school districts—giving them access to technology and applications that are having a day-to-day impact in the classroom.

Links:

Northeast Texas Regional Education Telecommunications Network

Trillion Partners Inc.

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