Dark fiber could be the future of school networking

Smart fiber upgrade

It’s been about 13 years since Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD) in Houston began building out its own fiber network. Frankie Jackson, CTO, has been with the district since 2013 and says her team is now in the process of upgrading to a 100G high-capacity network that will support its 128,000 students and staff. The third largest school district in Texas, CFISD is deploying a private optical network leveraging high-capacity networking solutions from Phonoscope LIGHTWAVE, a private fiber optic network service provider, and Ciena.

The network, which is being funded in part by the E-Rate program and designed in accordance with the Smart Education Networks by Design (SEND) Initiative through CoSN, will support the districts bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategy while improving access to web-based educational resources. Jackson says the smart fiber upgrade is part of the district’s Mission 2020 plan, which was developed by a 150-member long-range planning committee.

Part of Mission 2020 focused on creating a high-capacity network that would offer 100 percent system availability on a 24/7/365 basis. “We compare network availability to a utility; you expect it to be on just like you’d expect your water or electricity to be on,” Jackson says. To support the district’s BYOT initiative, that meant the network would have to accommodate one device per elementary student, two for every junior high school pupil, and three for each high school student. “We plugged the formula into an Excel spreadsheet and factored in teachers’ devices, visitor usage, and then district growth over the next 20 years,” says Jackson. “Then we said okay, this is what we need to build to accommodate these needs.”

Using SEND’s guidelines for network design as a framework, Jackson (who participated in the creation of those guidelines) says she enlisted vendors, such as Cisco and Brocade, to help develop the district’s upgraded network. Some of the key, early steps included segmenting the 200-square-mile district into six hubs (two junior high schools, one service center, and three high schools) and installing dual connections that link data centers to each hub and then out to the respective sites. “We’re using dark fiber to connect each of those sites,” says Jackson, “and it’s running beautifully.”

Key considerations for districts

For every self-provisioned network that “runs beautifully,” there’s at least one that requires a little extra elbow grease to build, maintain, and support. In some cases the challenges surface during RFP creation, others rear their heads during the permitting/permission stage (i.e., running cable under railroad tracks), and still others come once the system is up and running.

For a smart fiber initiative to go as smoothly as possible, Jackson says districts need to avoid the “quick fix” approach to their connectivity problems. “Everyone wants their technology components to work flawlessly 100% of the time,” she adds, “but they need to spend the time working on the foundation to assure that it can support all of the devices being brought onto the network.”

At Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation (BCSC) in Columbus, Ind., Director of Technology Mike Jamerson says the district has historically relied on a common carrier to provide the district’s managed fiber service. The district also has some dark fiber in areas where schools are separated by a street. The latter has been in place for about 15 years in some locations, says Jamerson, who sees permitting and easement permissions as one of the most difficult aspects of installing dark fiber.

“It’s pretty easy when you’re doing it on your own property,” says Jamerson. “When you have to go out any distance or run it under railroad tracks or across waterways, it can get pretty time consuming.” Once those issues are addressed, the district also has to register the fiber so that it can be located in the future. And don’t forget to factor in long-term maintenance issues and expenses—particularly if you’re using aerial fiber.

“When you’re using aerial fiber on someone else’s poles, there will be rental expenses associated with that strategy,” says Jamerson. “And what happens if there’s an ice storm? These are all considerations that need to be worked out in advance if you’re going to self-provision your own network.”

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