PBL's connection to fiber-optic network prepares district for future

PAXTON — In upcoming years, every student in the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district  could have a laptop computer to use in the classroom and complete their coursework at home — and reliable, high-speed Internet access will be critical to making that “one-to-one” technology initiative a reality.

Thankfully, PBL Technology Coordinator Mike Brehm said, the school district now has “lightning-fast” Internet speeds available through its connection to the Illinois Century Network (ICN), a telecommunications pipeline already used by thousands of schools and other public entities statewide.

PBL’s junior high and high schools “experimentally” connected to the statewide fiber-optic network on Dec. 11 and will officially do so in early January,  tripling the schools’ bandwidth — from about 30 megabits per second to up to 150 megabits per second, Brehm said.

Brehm added that the additional 100 megabits of bandwidth being bought by PBL from the ICN through an initial contract can be further increased if the district needs more, Brehm said.

“We can purchase much more,” Brehm said.

Brehm said the faster Internet speeds are “good preparation for the one-to-one initiative,” which would involve equipping every student with a laptop computer for use inside and outside of school.

“If we go to a one-to-one computing solution here, where we have one laptop for each student, we’re going to need all the bandwidth we can get — probably closer to 150 to 200 megabits — in order to do it justice to make it work well,” Brehm said. “Right now, nobody in town has the ability to provide that.”

Brehm said district officials plan to form a committee early in 2014 to explore the idea. Brehm said a pilot program would first be implemented, utilizing Chromebooks for students in upper-level grades and iPads for those in lower-level grades. The laptops would stay in the school building initially, Brehm said, but eventually would be purchased by students and be used in their homes.

Brehm said a “completely new wireless system” will be needed at PBL schools to accommodate the one-to-one initiative, and he expects the cost to exceed $25,000.

“The integration of a one-to-one computing instructional model has and will continue to be a major focus and emphasis over the next two years,” Brehm said.

Fiber-optic network could be expanded into community
Because PBL can purchase much more bandwidth from the ICN in the future, the district’s connection to the ICN could also be extended to the district’s other two schools, Brehm said.

The fiber-optic network could also be extended from the junior high/high school complex so that it is accessible by other public and private entities in the Paxton community, including businesses or the library. Brehm said he has already contacted Paxton Area Chamber of Commerce officials and other “tech folks” in Paxton in preparation for setting up a community meeting to gauge interest.

“We will talk about that,” Brehm said. “We need to have a conversation with those public entities or maybe even private entities that maybe would be interested in perhaps getting involved in using bandwidth from the Illinois Century Network. I hope that meeting will take place after the first of the year.”

Brehm said he has also invited Conxxus, an Internet service provider in Paxton, to be “a part of the discussion.”

Brehm said one option that could be explored is for the ICN’s fiber-optic network to be linked to Conxxus’ existing fiber-optic system in town to allow Conxxus to buy additional bandwidth from the ICN. Conxxus could, in turn, sell that additional bandwidth to private and public entities, perhaps even PBL’s other two schools.

An alternative to give both PBL Eastlawn School and Clara Peterson Elementary School higher-speed Internet is for PBL to build its own fiber-optic network in Paxton by extending the fiber-optic cable from its already-existing ICN connection.

“There’s a lot of possibilities here for us to discuss,” Brehm said.

Paxton among 400 ‘community access points’
The PBL Junior High/High School complex on Paxton’s east side is serving as one of 400 “community access points,” or “nodes,” for the ICN, which runs along Interstate 57. Others, such as Mahomet and Monticello, have already created financial partnerships with their school districts to build their fiber-optic networks using connections to the ICN, Brehm said.

“We’re going to be like a connecting station (for the ICN),” Brehm said. “We had it brought right into our building (at the junior high). ... We were chosen (as a community access point) basically because of our proximity to the interstate. Being right outside our back door, it only made sense.”

PBL has entered into a contract with the ICN to buy its 100 megabits of bandwidth for $1,000 per month; however, $640 of that cost is covered under the district’s annual E-Rate grant, which will provide $20,000 for the 2014-15 school year, Brehm said.

The state’s Central Management Services Bureau of Communication and Computer Services, which operates the ICN, is investing $100 million toward expanding it. The ICN doubled in size from 1997, when it was started, to 2007 to include 8,000 schools, universities, hospitals, libraries and other institutions statewide, according to the CMS website. In 2007, it was used by an estimated 2 million Illinois citizens.

The goal of the network is to increase the bandwidth available to public learning centers and other public entities at a low cost. The network was built upon a previously existing network called LincOn, which was designed to provide Internet connectivity to K-12 schools. LincOn was started by the Illinois State Board of Education.

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