Datanet International, an Irish telecommunications consultant, is currently exploring criteria for rolling out broadband connectivity to schools on a national level.
Commissioned by the Department of Education and Science, the study will assess the potential and costs of such a project prior to seeking the finance to make it happen.
Around 80pc of secondary schools currently use ISDN, 7pc have leased lines and the rest make do with internet access over 56Kbps modems. Broadband is defined as a recognised standard of 2Mbps, though the Department of Education will entertain slower speeds and a mix of technologies to deliver faster connectivity than is currently available.
Fergal Nolan from the Department’s information and communications technology (ICT) policy unit says the consultancy process began last year with the final report due in May. “We engaged a company to look at our unique market,” he said, referring to remote areas of the country where primary schools, in particular, sometimes have just a handful of pupils.
“We have asked them to look at where providers and products are at regionally and to map that information onto our customer base [the schools] and show us what is possible for improving speed of connectivity,” says Nolan.
The initiative is being looked at alongside other projects like the 19-town broadband rollout rather than in isolation but it addresses very specific issues for education. “The importance for us is that we will have a study done solely on the provision of schools and that will give us a marker that we don’t really have at the moment,” adds Nolan.
The move came to light in the same week that the Department of Education in Northern Ireland signed a managed service contract with Hewlett Packard worth £70m sterling. Part of a 10-year plan it will enable the linking of all individual school networks into a data centre, enhancing the North’s credentials as a centre of excellence for the integration of ICT in schools.
Broadband is one technology component, already in place in NI schools that has the potential to reinvent the education sector with its promise of virtual and collaborative learning.
By Ian Campbell