Dark fiber could be the future of school networking

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

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