Why Schools Need Big Bandwidth - Community Broadband Bits Episode 186

The St Vrain Valley School District, north of Denver and including the Longmont area, is transitioning from a shared gigabit network to dedicated 10 Gbps links for schools. Just what does it do with all that bandwidth? School District Chief Technology Officer Joe McBreen tells us this week in Community Broadband Bits podcast episode 186. We talk about why the need for so much bandwidth and the incredible savings the school district has received from the municipal fiber network. 

Additionally, we discuss how self-provisioning would have been the second more cost-effective solution, far better than leasing lines from an existing provider. Toward the end of our conversation, we touch on how students get access in their homes and what any business or manager needs to do to be successful, regardless of what industry he or she is in. See our other stories about Longmont here. 

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.

Transcript below.

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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."


Joe McBreen: In July of 2014, after a competitive process, which the city blew everybody away, we actually moved to a 10 gig network, so we tenfold increased our bandwidth and saved $100,000 in one fell swoop.

Lisa Gonzalez: Good day and welcome to Episode 186 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Educators are finding exciting new ways to teach our children. This is great news for kids who had the opportunity to experience exciting new technologies that inspire their learning process. On the flip side, many of these new approaches require fast, affordable, reliable connectivity that schools just don't have or struggle to afford. 

In this Podcast, Chris talks with Joe McBreen, chief technology officer for the St. Vrain Valley School District, in Longmont, Colorado. After years of working with incumbents, the school district found a way to obtain better service for less by collaborating with the City of Longmont. Here are Chris and Joe, talking about the process and how life has changed at the St. Vrain Valley School District.

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with Joe McBreen, the chief technology officer for the St. Vrain Valley School District. Welcome to the show.

Joe McBreen: Thank you. Glad to be here. 

Chris Mitchell: I first came into contact with you, I think, when we were looking at what was happening in Longmont, which is part of your territory. Where else does St. Vrain Valley go?

Joe McBreen: We are located approximately 30 miles north of the Denver metro area, between the towns of Boulder and Fort Collins. Our school district now only includes Longmont, Colorado, but also Lyons, Niwot, Mead, Frederick. Basically, we have approximately, well, exactly 411 square miles that our District services. It's a pretty big district. We have a lot of country, have a lot of city. We're a pretty good reflection of Americana, if you ask folks around here.

Chris Mitchell: Great. Longmont, itself is bigger than I think a lot of people realize at about 80,000 people. That's definitely quite urban to some of those areas are pretty rural up there in Colorado.

Joe McBreen: We have that. We have a really good variety of economic and socio-economic diversity, racial diversity, if you will. I'm really pleased to live and work in this community.

Chris Mitchell: You and I had talked a few years back on something we didn't do a whole lot of publicity around but it was when we were trying to get a better sense of how schools work with the E-Rate and how networks work and what the pressures you face are. I had a great time talking with you. I wanted to bring you back on to talk a little bit about those questions basically. 

I think the first thing I'd like to ask you is, we often talk about how the schools need more connectivity and schools don't have enough connectivity, but I thought a good place to start is asking, "Why do schools need so much more bandwidth than many of them have?" 

Joe McBreen: Really, it comes down to the fact that education is changing radically from the way adults learned. Let me give you a few examples. We grew up with paper textbooks. Historically, the way school districts typically have textbooks is they get new textbooks every seven years, five to seven years, depending on the District and the subject area. The reality is nowadays, curriculum, textbooks, are moving to a digital delivery system. That right there is a big need for more bandwidth, is the curriculum's digital. 

Besides that, I don't know if you've watched any students in the K through 12 space navigate their world, whether they're on an iPad or a Chromebook or a laptop or whatnot, but the content that they consume or demand, if you will, need, is video-based. It's not the text base internet of the '90s that so many of us think when we think about internet usage. It's very video heavy, very multi-media rich, if you will. Learning itself is changing.

Chris Mitchell: One of the things that I found interesting was if you think about that, I think some people might say, "Wow! I learned just fine on paper textbooks." One of the things that someone showed me was how much easier it was to learn about the human circulatory system if you could be looking at 3D models, if you could be able to zoom in and zoom out, if you could actually see the heart beating. It's remarkable.

Joe McBreen: It's beyond remarkable. It just makes a lot of sense from a brain science perceptive. The reality is, is every human learns a little differently, uses different modalities, if you will, to learn. Some are visual, some are auditory. Really, what technology does, is that it enhances the learning experience so that different learner's needs can be met. It's just getting better and better. 

Here's another example of the need for more bandwidth, more digital materials, and that's library books. Our district, over the last several years, has been conscientiously moving away from the model where it was 99% paper or pulp books in the library, maybe 1% digital. That's flip-flopped on its head where approximately 90% of our books are available online and only 20% are available in paper format, like as a rule of thumb. 

Teachers, back in the day, and actually in many parts of America today, were required to print a ton of paper for worksheets, for tests, for things like that, all digital now. There's huge savings to be made, but there's also the bandwidth that goes along with that.

Chris Mitchell: One of the things that I found interesting is something that you had recently noted in an email, was summed up in a different conversation I had with a different school CTO, actually. He said, anytime there's a disciplinary problem or question, the question the parents ask or that the supervisors ask is, "Show me the video. Where's the video?" One of the things you noted, is there's a tremendous demand for bandwidth for video in schools, just for monitoring hallway activity and things like that.

Joe McBreen: Trust me, my wife is an assistant principal at one of the local high schools. She could speak to this subject at length, but video is a reality in most schools nowadays. They want video surveillance inside. They want video surveillance outside. That's normal operating, but what happens if there's a crisis situation, a lock-out or a lock-down, or an active shooter situation. What an opportunity having ample bandwidth and IP security cameras in place offers our first responders, our SWAT teams and whatnot, if they can get live views inside and outside of the facility.

Chris Mitchell: One of the things that I had pointed out to you was the wonderful demonstration ... Wonderful's an interesting word, I guess, but the stunning, powerful demonstration that Ammon, Idaho has gone through with how they manage theirs on their fiber. One of the things that, I think, sets them apart is that they have this dedicated fiber to each location. One of the things I wanted to talk with you about is how you moved from a network in which you had a bunch of facilities that were all sharing a fiber connection to one where they each have dedicated fiber, I think. Can you tell us a little bit about the network that you just moved away from?

Joe McBreen: Our story's probably very typical of many schools and community businesses, if you will, where it wasn't too many years ago when we had T1 lines or multiple T1 lines feeding a building. Then, back in 2009, we moved to a 1 gig fiber connection, to our schools. We're very interesting, Chris, because we have both point-to-point fiber and fiber rings. The City of Longmont itself, many years ago, we're talking like back in the late '90s, there was a company called "Yipes". Yipes had a really great vision to lay fiber in towns and, luckily, Longmont was one of the two or three that I understand they actually started with. 

Unfortunately, that company went out of business very quickly, but not before they had a bunch of dark fiber laying in the trenches all over town and two physical rings. The City of Longmont assumed those assets. Long story short, the voters approved using those assets to delivery broadband services to the community and, of course, the school district is part of the community, as is the hospital. I'm very proud of our city broadband folks the way they went about their job.

What happened to our school district in the Town of Longmont, so we have 32 schools in the Town of Longmont, and they are on the ring. Like I said before, there are two physical rings, but we'll just "the ring", "the City ring", and a year and a half ago, or maybe two years ago is a better way to say it, we were with a different vendor. We were subscribed to a 1 gigabyte per second shared ring. In July 2014, after a competitive process, which the City blew everybody away, we actually moved to a 10-gig network, so we tenfold increased our bandwidth, and saved $100,000 in one fell swoop.

Chris Mitchell: Is that $100,000 a year, or is that over the life of the contract?

Joe McBreen: Per year.

Chris Mitchell: Wow! 

Joe McBreen: Huge savings for us. Nobody can argue with those economics. It's beyond wonderful. That describes our in-town infrastructure. 10-gig fiber ring. Then, I think opened up the show with saying that we're dispersed across 411 square miles. Obviously, those outlying towns aren't going to be connected to the ring. We actually have point-to-point fibers going out to them that we are currently in the process of upgrading from 1-gig to 10-gig. 

Chris Mitchell: If I remember correctly, I think those were ones that you had worked with. There's some private companies that specialize in basically building those and leasing them and that sort of thing. You've gone with them rather than one of the local, larger companies. Is that right?

Joe McBreen: Yeah. That was done back in July 2009. It's a 10-year lease. That's where we are with those outlying schools, but, I guess, to summarize it, at the end of the day, all of our schools will have a 10-gig connection here very shortly, which, is appropriate and necessary nowadays.

Chris Mitchell: One of the things that we talked about ... There's some things that I find surprising and then there's some things that basically knock my socks off. I did not anticipate this, but when we talked, I was asking you about the difference of running your own network as a school district versus leasing lines. I was trying to get a sense of how much more personnel, what the extra cost might be, for you in running your own network rather than leasing lines from say like the big telephone company.

You told me that it was actually cheaper, from a personnel standpoint, you thought, because when you're running your own network, that when something goes wrong, you can figure out what it is more quickly rather than having people waiting on hold and waiting for other people to get back to you as to what's happening on their network.

Joe McBreen: You hit it on the head. The point-to-point gigabyte connection to our outlying schools costs us approximately right at $800,000 per year to lease. We will have done that for ten years. You do the math. That's a big investment. Are you following so far?

Chris Mitchell: Yes.

Joe McBreen: That's the outlying schools that we're leasing through that provider.

Chris Mitchell: Just to be clear, we're not suggesting this is a bad deal. This is a pretty run-of-the-mill deal. You're getting good capacity connections. It was a pretty good deal when it was struck. This is not one of those instances ... I guess what I want to say is that a lot of schools are in a much worse position where they would be envious of that contract, even.

Joe McBreen: Yeah, they would. That's a fair point.

Chris Mitchell: In any rate, that's your worst case scenario, right now.

Joe McBreen: Yeah. Then, there's that. For all of those outlying schools, approximately $800,000 every year. At the end of that, like I said, we're leasing it. We don't technically own anything. We'll have to re-up the lease. We expect and they've committed verbally to radically lowering the price per year from $800,000 to something more reasonable. That said, contrast that with our 10-gig rings here that all of the in-city schools are using. That's right at $150,000 per year. Anybody can do the math, like wow! Radical difference.

Chris Mitchell: One of the things that you were looking at is whether you could do it at a lower cost just within the school district rather than leasing from the city. I think, if I remember correctly, you would have been able to do it at a lower cost than you're paying for those outlying districts. But, because Longmont had that, the benefit of the scale and operating across the entire city, they were able to offer you an even better deal. 

Joe McBreen: Let's pretend that our city wasn't the winner and we had to go with the second or third place competitor for our 10-gig band. We could have easily beaten what they proposed by going with dark fiber, buying our own electronics, and hiring a full-time technician devoted to that. It's not even close. 

Chris Mitchell: What does that mean, when you say ... I think people, when you say, "buying your own electronics", I think you might lose people, but is that very intimidating? Is that something you go to newegg.com and buy them off the shelf? How does that work?

Joe McBreen: I would go with your local vendor. We are a Sysco shop, but it doesn't matter who your network infrastructure vendor is, they will gladly tell you what little electronic piece you need to buy to plug into your switch so that you can connect that piece of fiber that was previously dark, but now all of a sudden has light running through it. 

Chris Mitchell: The question that I wrestle with is how a CTO or a CIO in a school district that hasn't done this before ... Should they be intimidated by the process?

Joe McBreen: Absolutely not. One of the things that I've been blessed with, is I'm not afraid to ask "ignorant questions". I don't care. I need to know. I would just encourage that of anybody who might get that lump in their throat, like, "Oh my gosh! I don't want to look stupid." Or, "Oh, gosh! This is intimidating." Vendors are there to really do a good job. Ask them as many questions as you need until you're satisfied. It should not be intimidating. 

Back in the early 2000s, I worked as a technological trainer for a broadband equipment company doing everything from advanced training to my favorite classes were actually the basic fiber and basic T1 courses and things like that because people like CTOs and whatnot would come in and say, "I'm working in this broadband space. Can you teach me this lingo?" Inevitably, after about four or five hours of study, they'd go, "Oh my God! This stuff is so easy, I don't know why people make it seem so complicated." I'm just encouraging your listeners to go ahead and ask those questions, invest some time, and you'll be pleasantly surprised this is not rocket surgery.

Chris Mitchell: Is there anything else that you think our listeners should know about being the CTO in the network and these telecommunication things that you wrestle with?

Joe McBreen: I'm a big fan of that old quote that's been attributed to Wayne Gretzky. You know, the one about skating to where the puck is going.

Chris Mitchell: I use that often, yes. 

Joe McBreen: It just makes so much sense to me. You have that ethical responsibility. Anybody in a leadership role needs to be thinking about where we're going and knowing that infrastructure improvements are so critical. It always takes twice as long to install as you typically think it will. The time to act and have these discussions is right now. You have to be thinking in the future, but the reality is, at least for schools and libraries, is we have the wonderful E-Rate program, which is just one of the best things the government ever did. Without that, I don't know where schools and libraries would be.

Chris Mitchell: Actually, that brings up an interesting question, which is, I think, how do you get to the home? As a school district, you shouldn't be responsible for it and you don't have the resources to solve the problem of making sure every child is connected in the home. Yet, a lot of educational success depends on kids being able to do the work at home and thinking at home and educating themselves to some extent. How do you wrestle with that issue?

Joe McBreen: That's an interesting question that many people don't like my answer to. Right now today, we have 12,000 iPads as part of our on-going technology program. We also have an additional 4,000 iPads that came from ... We were one of the 16 school districts in the nation that won the Race to the Top Grant a couple of years ago. 4,000 iPads came from the Race to the Top Grant, plus we have 7,500 Chromebooks, plus a couple of thousand laptops, Windows, Macs, stuff like that. We also open up our wireless network to public access to moms and dads and kids who bring their own devices to school can get on the wireless network.

On any given day, we have approximately 2,700 devices on our wireless network. It's a pretty big load. I'm going to go back to the iPad comment. One of the reasons we chose the iPad a couple of years ago was because it had the ability to store files locally to take away that digital divide reality that some kids just can't afford internet access at home. Maybe your listeners know or not, but lots of companies like Comcast offer Internet Essentials for $10 a month, if you produce proof or paperwork that you're on free or reduced lunch. They'll give you $10 a month internet. For $150, they'll sell you a little laptop. 

There's ways to get home internet access, but even in my school district, we have 32,000 kids. Only 640 families are taking advantage of that $10 a month broadband. One of my favorite things is I will go out and shadow a student all day, a couple of times a year. I just got done doing 7th graders not too many months ago. I would go from the opening bell to the closing bell, yes, eating lunch with them and all, and walk around with them. During those times, I'd get a chance to visit with other kids. 

I ask questions like, "Hey! What do you do for home internet access?", knowing that this is a very poor school. Inevitably, "Do you have home internet access?" This one kid, I can picture him clearly, he says, "No." I'm like, "Wow! That's got to be really tough. What do you do for wireless?" He says, "Oh! I just use my neighbor's wireless. He gave me the password." I'm like, "Oh, God! Pirating his neighbor's Wi-Fi." That's not what we're hoping for, but the reality is, is that between businesses and neighbors. 

Here's another huge one. SmartPhones with hot spot extenders. Kids, I can honestly tell you, we're in our third year of doing this iPad roll-out. I haven't had one, not one parent complaint to my desk about not having home internet access. 

Chris Mitchell: It's hopeful. I think to some extent, it gives me reassurance that people do find local ways. It may not be the way that as a policymaker we think is the most efficient, but people find a way, generally.

Joe McBreen: Yeah, they do. I'm not promoting that and I'm not saying that's great either, I'm just saying, "That's the reality." 

Chris Mitchell: Right. I'd be curious. Have you shadowed kids in the more rural districts where they may not have a neighbor where Wi-Fi would range all the way over to them?

Joe McBreen: No. I haven't, but I'm actually scheduled to do that in early March. I'll let you know if I bump into anything.

Chris Mitchell: I'd be curious. It's also just great that you do that. That, to me, seems like such a smart way of getting a sense of what's really happening in the schools.

Joe McBreen: Oh my gosh! I don't care what business you're in, you have to go spend a solid day in your customer's shoes. In my case, my customer is students. 

Chris Mitchell: I think that's great advice. One of the things that my organization has worked on for 40 years is solid waste policy. One of the first things when we would get a contract, I mean, it's not something that I worked on, being in a different program, but the lure of our institute. It's one of the first things we would do, is one of the people, particularly one of our founders, would ride around, in a garbage truck, with the people all day to see what the waste stream was like. That was just unheard of, that someone working on policy would actually go down to that level to see what was happening. It's essential.

Joe McBreen: How powerful is that?

Chris Mitchell: That's a great place to leave it. Thank you so much for coming on the show. 

Joe McBreen: It's my pleasure, truly. Thank you.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Joe McBreen, chief technology officer of the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colorado. We have a number of articles on Longmont, so be sure to check out the tag at muninetworks.org. We want to hear your ideas for the show. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org. You can follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. You can also follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter, where the handle is @muninetworks. Thank you, Arne Huseby, for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. Thank you for listening to Episode 186 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.