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September 7, 2009 11:42 PM

Why All Schools Need Fiber

While there's little consensus as to whether every home and business will someday require a fiber pipe, there should be no debate that every school in America needs fiber.

The reasoning is simple: only fiber can support the demands for simultaneous capacity that the classrooms of today and tomorrow require.

Let's show why with some simple math.

Say you've got one classroom with ten computers in it. One of the many applications these computers can access is an online repository of HD video that's available for a teacher to incorporate into his or her curriculum.

(It should be noted here that such a repository is under construction today and would likely already be widely available if not for the lack of sufficient bandwidth to deliver HD video reliably to most classrooms.)

Next we must acknowledge that an H.264 (a standard for video compression) HD video requires 8Mbps to deliver one stream to one user.

So the classroom described above would require at least 80Mbps of simultaneous bandwidth if each student is to be able to watch their own video at the same time or the same video starting at different times. (If everyone's watching the same video at the same time, multicast technology can be used to broadcast the video digitally to reduce bandwidth demands.)

But this example of a classroom woefully underestimates how much bandwidth a school really needs to support the simultaneous delivery of HD video to multiple students. Many classrooms have 20 computers or more, and hopefully every school has more than one room equipped with computers.

Even if we keep the number of computers at ten and simply bump up the number of classrooms to five, all of a sudden a single school requires 400Mbps to support the delivery of HD video apps.

And that's just the downstream requirements. If we want teachers to be able to lead classes remotely, to conduct virtual field trips, and to foster collaboration between geographically distant classrooms, then there must also be enough upstream capacity to support at least one HD video stream uploading per classroom. In the conservative model laid out above, that would mean a minimum of 40Mbps being required for every five networked classrooms in a school.

Now let's compare these demands against the sad state of many schools' connectivity, in particular K-12 and community colleges as most colleges and universities already have fiber. There are countless schools today that are still stuck paying thousands of dollars a month to bundle together multiple T1 lines, which only deliver 1.5Mbps symmetrical each. In other words, they're paying too much for access to inadequate networks.

And yet I know that many of my fiber-laying friends are able to go into communities and offer schools 100Mbps connections for the same cost as those bundled T1s. Plus they also provide the opportunity for schools to scale their bandwidth up indefinitely, something no other broadband technology can do.

It's also important to note, though, that the benefits of fiber aren't just about faster Internet access. Many applications, like the HD video repository mentioned above, work even better when that fiber's being used as a community, regional, or statewide LAN. In this way, schools are able to get even more bandwidth for in-network delivery between schools, districts, etc.

There's just no getting around the fact that when it comes to the connectivity needs of our educational system, we have to set the standard of a fiber pipe to every school.

Anything less than fiber means teachers will be handcuffed in terms of how much they can incorporate online experiences into their lesson plans. Schools won't be able to realize all the efficiencies and opportunities of their counterparts in other countries that have made a commitment to fiber. And ultimately our students will suffer from having limited access to a truly 21st century education.

With all this in mind, our national broadband plan must acknowledge this basic reality of America's broadband demands. The plan can't afford to allow the debate over residential broadband's future and the sacred cow of maintaining strict technological neutrality to obfuscate what our schools truly need. And the simple truth is that our schools need fiber.

But that's just one component of the national fiber plan that should be at the core of any national broadband plan. Many more details on what that national fiber plan should include and how we can go about accomplishing these goals to come in future posts.

For now, though, let's push everything else aside, and come to agreement on the straightforward, justifiable, and achievable goal that every school in America needs and deserves fiber. The future of 21st century education in America depends on it.

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