Delays to school broadband scheme

28 Jul 2005

Like all plans that are epic in scope, the devil is in the detail. It was with much fanfare that an industry-backed plan to roll out DSL, wireless and satellite broadband to more than 4,000 primary and secondary schools across Ireland was unveiled last autumn, with the initial aim to have broadband in all of these schools by the start of the school year 2005.

At the beginning of July a mere 80 of the schools had broadband installed and by the end of the current year, 50pc of the schools may have broadband installed, with the remainder due to be completed by March 2006.

The Broadband for Schools initiative came about primarily because the telecoms industry, in the form of the IBEC-backed Telecommunications and Internet Federation stumped up €15m from its members to wire up the schools. This was followed by another €3m from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, bringing the sum to €18m. The Department of Education and Science stumped up an additional €18m to provide the schools with local area networks.

A recently tweaked tendering process saw regional broadband player Digiweb allotted 1,655 schools, Smart Telecom 1,033 schools, Irish Broadband 588 schools, BT Ireland 341 schools, Last Mile Wireless 214 schools and wireless operator HS Data allotted 94 schools. Eircom was given the task of providing 3,393 schools with routers, university internet player Heanet was given the task of acting as the internet service provider managing the central router of the network and the National Council for Technology in Education (NCTE) and Cara would support the 10-strong service desk that all schools would approach about technical problems. Overall project management would be handled by telecoms consultancy Data Net. Other contracts, such as the security system and email system for the 4,000 schools have yet to be signed.

Sources within the telecoms industry have highlighted that a long, drawn-out procurement process has seen contracts signed only in recent weeks and months, and unforeseen problems on the ground are stymying progress. In some cases the headmaster or caretaker is gone away for the summer with the keys to the school and cannot be found. In other cases, phone lines are failing tests because they are the same lines on which ancient PBX systems, fax machines and Eircom Phonewatch alarm systems operate.

An industry source explains: “Contracts were awarded very late, the whole tendering process was very strict with a lot of red tape and was very time consuming. The initiative was launched last October but responsibilities were allocated only in February. Some vendors haven’t even been contracted yet. The reason for the delay is the core rollout of the actual tender process is tied in with government procurement procedures.

“Because we are being told to deal directly with the schools, we are finding that school staff don’t understand telecoms or broadband and have no knowledge of where the lines are in the building. We will be lucky if 50pc of the schools have broadband by Christmas going by the current rate of progress.”

Communications Minister Noel Dempsey TD acknowledges delays in getting the Broadband for Schools initiative off the ground. “Some of the schools will be live for the beginning of the school year but the majority will go live at the tail end of this year and the whole project should be completed by early 2006.

“The project was made all the more complex by the fact that there were so many players involved and it was a matter of getting the contracts right. Ensuring that the contracts would stick was the difficulty.”

“It’s no secret that the Government isn’t happy with broadband rollout and local loop unbundling (LLU). But if you step back and look at it in the overall context of broadband, the schools broadband initiative was one of the things that moved more quickly,” Minister Dempsey adds.

Tom Lonergan, technology co-ordinator at the NCTE explains that at the beginning of July there were 80 schools connected to broadband. “This will ramp up throughout July and will escalate over the next few months as we endeavour to hit targets. We will exceed 50pc by Christmas.

“We are a little delayed in starting but from the progress I’ve seen we are very happy with the level of engagement and the processes put in place from each of the service providers. They have good relationships and where there are issues we are putting processes in place to resolve them. In hindsight, we are going to look back and say we did a good job. This will be the single largest network in the country, bigger than even the Lotto network,” Lonergan explains.

Depending on whom you ask, the issues surrounding the Broadband for Schools initiative are only a sideshow in a much wider problem surrounding the deployment of ICT into Ireland’s schools. The €18m for broadband (provided mostly by industry) and the further €18m for equipment from the Government pale beside previous programmes in the 1996 and 1997 when IR£35m and IR£65m respectively were ploughed into the IT 2000 initiative.

As education authorities in the North proceed with a 10-year plan to give all students from primary to university level access to their own PC, email address and broadband access, Martin Murphy, managing director of Hewlett-Packard (HP) Ireland, criticises the lack of any similar scheme in the rest of Ireland and warned this could be harmful to the State’s long-term economic prosperity. HP and BT were contracted by the education authorities in the North to rollout ICT to 1,200 Northern Ireland (NI) schools over a 12-month period.

Murphy says: “Unlike our counterparts elsewhere — in particular in NI — there is no coherent vision or funding for the development of a managed-learning environment for schools; there is no policy for furnishing schools with a minimum standard of ICT equipment needed to provide our children with an essential awareness of technology and there is no central procurement and distribution of technology by government to schools.”

Murphy also warns because under the Government’s programme individual schools are forced to procure and manage their own ICT equipment for their students, the inevitable result is schools that are well supported by comparatively wealthy parents will be significantly at an advantage compared with schools serving disadvantaged areas.

Michael Hallissy, a former primary-school teacher who worked with the NCTE in the late Nineties, is a director with the Diageo Liberties Learning Initiative in the Digital Hub with colleague John Hurley. They also run a project called Teachnet that encourages teachers to publish their own materials on the internet. Their expertise has led them to work for the World Bank in Turkey, advising on a €500m IT investment in that country.

Hallissy warns: “It’s great that broadband is finally going in, but the primary funding is coming from the industry. What is worrying is that there is no clear ICT policy at government level.” Hallissy contrasts the Government’s inaction on this and the piecemeal nature of technology grants in Irish schools with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s vigorous response to the McKenzie Report.

“It is not just about putting broadband in schools. What schools should be concerning themselves with is the appropriate use of broadband in teaching and learning, and ensure this expensive resource is used effectively. We are putting in broadband but where is the structure, where is the policy on content? How is this going to be used to give teacher training? How will it impact the maths curriculum?”

Minister Dempsey agrees there is an opportunity for change in Irish education methodologies. “The methods of teaching and classroom management are going to have to change.

“There will need to be a reorganisation of how teachers teach in classrooms. It will mean teachers will become mentors rather than the oracle from which all information passes. Intellectually, teachers are going to have to teach young people life skills associated with managing information, such as discerning fact from fiction.”

He concludes: “We have encouraged the industry to make the investment and it has responded and from an equipment upgrade perspective I am confident that further re-investment will be written into the Government’s budget for years to come.”

A clear, ongoing investment path is required argues Halissy. “What is needed is someone at government level who can champion ICT in education. Momentum has dropped in this regard in recent years. The level of commitment to ICT in Irish schools at government level has to be questioned.”

By John Kennedy