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dark fiber

Is dark fiber in your district’s future?


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

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began allowing E-rate applicants to apply for discounts for dark fiber and self-provisioned fiber. These “smart fiber” options are seen as a way to give institutions more tools for meeting connectivity demands.

Take our quick poll on dark fiber here.

Key points:

  • 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. Bandwidth amounts are controlled by the school, and determined by the capacity of the optical network equipment.
  • A toolkit offers an overview of the E-rate program, important considerations for schools to assess their networking options, and a call to action for school systems to take steps toward deciding on and making effective use of today’s fiber connectivity options.
  • To ensure success with a dark fiber initiative, districts should avoid looking at the solution as a “quick fix” and should instead invest time and research into the project
  • Moving to dark fiber can be more cost-effective in the long run, but it also presents more work for district IT leaders as they research and build plans

Next page: Learn from district IT leaders and their experiences with dark fiber

Take our poll on dark 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.

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.

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. “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.”

One district’s story

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 district’s 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 and is 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.

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.”

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 percent 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.”

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Laura Ascione

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