Dark fiber is helping some districts scale broadband for tomorrow, not today. Is it the future of networking?

After taking steps to update and increase funding for the E-rate program in 2014, this year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began allowing applicants to apply for discounts for dark fiber and self-provisioned fiber.

Seen as a way to give institutions more tools for meeting connectivity demands, these “smart fiber” options are already being used by schools nationwide. With the expanded E-rate opportunities, the number of K-12 districts exploring their dark/self-provisioned options could grow significantly over the next few years.

What is dark fiber?

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) does a good job of breaking down traditional and self-provisioned options in a PDF on its website. Basically, self-provisioned options let schools build new fiber networks without using existing fiber optic cables. Schools then own those networks and, as such, are responsible for the related operations and management costs.

According to the DPI, lit fiber refers to a leased fiber service that the school does not own or manage. In this common scenario, bandwidth amounts are controlled by the terms of a contract with the service provider (i.e., 100 Mbps for $3,000 per month).

Dark fiber refers to physical fiber that the school owns, leases, or IRUs (indefeasible rights of use, or permanent contractual agreements). The school then “lights” the fiber by connecting its own network equipment to it, or by contracting with a third party to provide and configure it. Bandwidth amounts are controlled by the school, and determined by the capacity of the optical network equipment.

Sheryl Abshire, CTO at Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Lake Charles, La., sees E-rate’s expansion to include dark fiber provisioning as yet another way for U.S. schools to compete in the global marketplace. “We have an obligation to meet the growing need for bandwidth and to produce young people who are digitally literate and globally competitive,” says Abshire, whose district utilizes leased lines but is currently exploring its self-provisioning options.

“We have to remember that students in Latrobe, La., aren’t competing against pupils in Houston. They’re competing against students in Finland, Germany, Singapore, and Bangladesh, to name just a few,” says Abshire. “I’ve spent considerable time at schools in Asia and Scandinavia, and I can tell you neither has bandwidth problems or spinning rainbows on their [laptop] screens.”

Pros and cons of DIY fiber

When the FCC opened the door for K-12 public schools to explore their smart network options, it also put a whole new set of challenges in front of the district that decides to build its own network.  To help schools determine the best connectivity approach in an era where 68% of district technology leaders say they’re struggling with this issue, CoSN and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University developed Maximizing K-12 Fiber Connectivity Through E-Rate: An Overview. The toolkit includes an overview of the E-rate program, important considerations for schools to assess their options, and a call to action for school systems to begin taking measurable steps toward deciding on and making effective use of today’s fiber connectivity options.

Abshire sees affordability as one of smart fiber’s main attractors for schools. Play by the FCC’s rules by creating a request for proposal (RFP), building out the network, and then maintaining it over time, she says, and over a 5-year amortization period the initiative will probably be more cost effective than leasing lines over that same period of time. “Districts have the chance to think out of the box and maybe even build more bandwidth between schools,” says Abshire, who notes that such initiatives aren’t for the faint of heart.

“A CTO can’t just go out on a limb, develop an RFP, and go through the motions without factoring in ramifications like maintenance, uptime, property rights (e.g., for burying cable),” says Abshire, whose team will take part in CoSN’s Teaming for Transformation project in the spring and visit a district that’s already built its own fiber network. “Here at our vast district, I’ll have to talk to every community agency and even railroad companies (for running the cable under the tresses) to be able to get the job done. It’s a lot of work.”

Next page: What happened when one district went dark fiber 13 years ago

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.”

About the Author:

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.