New regional network means higher speed, lower costs for schools
February 12, 2016 12:00 AM
Using a smartboard, teacher Alexis Pavolik leads her preschoolers in counting numbers at Allegheny Intermediate Unit Head Start in Carnegie.
Hoda Chaouk uses a smartboard at Allegheny Intermediate Unit Head Start in Carnegie.
Alexis Pavolik leads her preschoolers in dance and music while using a smartboard at Allegheny Intermediate Unit Head Start in Carnegie.
By Anya Sostek / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Near the A.W. Beattie Career Center in McCandless, five graduate students from China live in two apartments. Each day, they walk to Beattie, where they use video cameras to teach Chinese classes to middle and high school students throughout the region.
The program is one of many in the county that uses a regional computer network coordinated by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. Starting this summer, the programs will use a new Regional Wide Area Network — one that will provide those services cheaper and faster.
“It’s the beauty of bulk purchasing,” Jon Amelio, chief technology officer for the AIU, said of the cost savings realized by the new contract. “This was a huge collaborative effort.”
The cost savings over the current provider will be dramatic.
“In a nutshell, districts will save anywhere from 40 to 70 percent over what they’re paying now,” Mr. Amelio said.
The Regional Wide Area Network connects schools in Allegheny County to each other over fiber-optic cable and also connects schools to the Internet and to Internet2, a high-speed network for educational institutions. The county already has an RWAN that has been in operation since 2008, but because of the relatively high cost under the current provider, the AIU decided to rebid the contract, Mr. Amelio said.
The AIU received bids from six companies and chose DQE Communications in the South Side, a subsidiary of Duquesne Light, to provide the network, starting July 1.
A new network means that the fiber-optic network that the schools already have will need to be rebuilt, but because DQE has existing infrastructure throughout most of the county, it will not be building the entire network from scratch, said Lisa Williams, manager of marketing and wholesale services.
In addition to being cheaper, the service will also be more reliable, which makes all the difference for programs such as the one at Beattie, which serves 178 students in 15 schools in eight school districts.
“The network has to be strong, that’s the biggest backbone,” said Sandy Niggel, assistant director of curriculum and instruction there. “If the network can’t handle it — or if it’s unreliable — the kids just won’t be receiving instruction.”
The new contract will affect electronic learning at virtually every level in the county, from preschool students using smartboards at the AIU’s Head Start in Carnegie to high school students in the South Park School District using online software to design a project for a 3-D printer.
“The biggest primary use is going to be this high-speed Internet access that is really heads and shoulders above what a private organization could get or what we could buy on our own,” said Richard Platts, director of technology for South Park. “This is exponentially going to increase what we’re able to do.”
Under the current contract, districts are paying $1,500 a month to be on the RWAN. Under the new DQE contract, that same speed and connection will cost districts $550 per month. Because of that savings, many districts are deciding to upgrade the speed of their service, getting 10 times their current speed for $895 per month.
The price for Internet service has gone down 85 percent, Mr. Amelio said — from $7 per megabyte per second to $1. The cost for an entire district for a month of Internet service will be only about $100, he said.
“The Internet is becoming a commodity,” Mr. Amelio said. “We are acting as a consortium and vendors love that. They can sell it a lot cheaper.”
Anya Sostek: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1308.
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