In May 2021, Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission, said in no uncertain terms that broadband is no longer a nice-to-have but has become a need-to-have due to the coronavirus pandemic.
At Kent ISD, Glen Finkel could only nod and add an emphatic “Yes!”
The director of information technology and data services is nearing the finish line on a broadband project that has been progressing for almost four years now, after being dreamed about two decades ago.
It sees some 120 miles of fiber, including almost 40 miles buried beneath the ground and another 80 miles in the air, running from the Kent ISD headquarters on the East Beltline and Knapp Street in Grand Rapids to 20 school districts throughout Kent ISD’s service area.
That Wide Area Network, or WAN, is designed to provide a high-speed, low-latency connection between each district and the ISD.
That means super-fast internet — plus a bunch of other cool stuff — for schools across Kent ISD.
Finkel smiled when asked the question.
“Some of our districts were getting 100 megs, maybe 200 megs,” he said, referring to download speeds of 100 and 200 megabits per second. That would be considered pretty fast for home internet speeds, but not necessarily what a school needs to serve its students and staff.
“Now they are getting 10 times faster than that or better at a fraction of the cost,” he said. Of that high-speed internet offering, with some understatement, he said: “It’s been very popular.”
Schools Need Faster and Faster Internet
Popular for a reason, Finkel added.
“With COVID, schools have done a lot of aggregation,” he said. “What I mean by that is that the M-STEP requires internet, learning management systems require internet. YouTube lessons require internet. On top of that, some of our districts have added thousands of devices. As districts have added more and more, it has caused them to need faster and faster internet.”
Scott Vugteveen, the director of technology for Kentwood Public Schools, agreed. He described the district’s recent transition to the WAN for internet as “a huge win.”
“The increase in bandwidth allows our students and teachers to take advantage of the vast, media-rich content that is available online today. This really makes learning come alive in ways that were not possible with the limited bandwidth in the past.”
Of his district’s increase in internet bandwidth from one gigabit per second to four gigabits per second, he said “It’s like going from a dirt road to a superhighway. And saving money at the same time? It’s a win-win.”
And while the fast internet benefits lots of people at a school and is a highly visible benefit of the network, Finkel said other parts of what Kent ISD can now offer because of it are equally important in more behind-the-scenes ways.
Physical and Virtual Data Center Access
One popular offering for school district IT people is both physical and virtual access to the Kent ISD data center that the new fiber system makes possible. The physical option allows districts to put their equipment in the racks at Kent ISD at no charge and run their systems through that equipment with no change in speed to what they are running.
This is the low-latency part of the network, and it provides a big benefit, Finkel said, to school districts who want to get out of the data center business.
“The equipment feels like it is in their data center,” he said.
In addition, when districts get to run their equipment from the ISD, it’s the ISD that manages the power and backup power, as well as components such as cooling and physical security.
School districts also benefit from dedicated ISD staff to monitor security, networks and backups, Finkel said.
Already, a dozen districts in the Kent ISD have moved equipment to the Beltline and Knapp location thanks to the WAN.
Adrianne Rose, director of technology & information services for Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, said her district has partnered with Kent ISD for almost a year now for network and server management, something she and her team really appreciate.
“Local school districts often rely on the ISD for assistance, including for IT needs” she said. “Due to our partnership, our on-site technology team now is able to fully invest in classroom, teacher and student needs.”
Another option that school districts appreciate, Finkel said, is disaster recovery services that allow districts to store a backup copy of critical data in the ISD’s data center and easily and quickly access it when needed.
A Shared Asset for the Future
Finkel said Kent ISD headed up the project to save school districts money, with the $4.4 million price tag covered by the ISD’s General Capital Projects Fund.
That fund, explained Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD’s assistant superintendent for business, is one of three at the ISD. It does not have a dedicated source of funding, but funds are transferred from operational funds to finance those projects as they come along.
“For the WAN project, funds were transferred into the General Capital Projects funds for four years, with this being the fourth of those four years,” he said.
Finkel said the Kent Intermediate Superintendents Association and a collaboration committee are having conversations about the future, including what needs the districts have, asking “Can we do it cheaper or better, or both?”
“We have a shared asset now,” Finkel said. “A big question is, how do we manage it for the future?”
For his part, Kentwood’s Vugteveen figures the shared asset will be nothing but a positive.
“The partnership with local school districts and Kent ISD is fantastic,” he said. “Our sports teams may compete on the field, but as district technology leaders we are always sharing ideas and looking for ways to make a positive impact on teaching and learning.”