Schools round broadband corner

31 Jul 2006

The challenges around connecting more than 4,000 Irish schools to broadband have largely been overcome but there is still a long way to go before classrooms are reaping the educational benefits that fast ‘pipes’ can deliver.

In 2004, the Department of Education and Science put out a tender for the €18m project that was subsequently divided up between Digiweb, Smart Telecom, Irish Broadband, BT Ireland, Last Mile and HS Data.

Tom Lonergan, technology co-ordinator at the NCTE (National Centre for Technology in Education), explains how the schools network was designed to accommodate the different providers. “The internet connection goes through the router in the school, out on to the broadband ‘pipe’, be it wireless, satellite or DSL depending on the service provider.

“Then it goes through the service provider’s access network and interconnects with HEAnet. From there it goes out on to the national schools network, passing through content filters and firewalls. Finally, it goes out on to the open internet to request data from websites.”

HEAnet, the network provider to Ireland’s education and research community, was chosen to manage and oversee the network, assuming a role not dissimilar to an internet service provider.

Ronan Byrne, HEAnet’s senior project manager on the schools project, gives an insight into the scale of the challenge in building the schools network. “We have engaged with other European national research and education networks with regard to connecting schools but there wasn’t a precedent for connecting with six different access providers; typically it’s just one,” he said.

Working to Department of Education timelines, Byrne and his team embarked on preparatory work before the tenders were even awarded. “We had to pre-empt potential outcomes of the tender process, then procure and build it very quickly. We couldn’t forecast how many providers or points of presence we’d need to connect to, so from a backbone design point of view we had to plan for different scenarios and be in a position to react quickly.”

The six different providers that subsequently won the contracts came with nine different technologies that had to be individually tested in a project that grew increasingly complex. There was a two-month window from when the contracts were completed in Easter 2005 to having the backbone interconnected and tested with the providers. “It was a busy time,” recalls Byrne, “but we met the Department of Education’s timetable, on time and in budget.”

At the awarding of the contracts, Digiweb was allotted 1,655 schools, Smart Telecom 1,033, Irish Broadband 588, BT Ireland 341, Last Mile Wireless 214 and wireless operator HS Data 94. When it came to the deployment, the exact breakdown would change, as Orla Duffy, head of marketing at Irish Broadband, explains. “There was a lot of rejigging between providers and we actually ended up with 620 schools. That said, there were some locations we couldn’t do. A building might have gone up and blocked the line of site that is required for our fixed-wireless service and it was the same for other providers. There was some swapping around.”

Duffy says problems have been largely overcome and 90pc of its allocation is now connected.

Jerome Morrissey, director of the NCTE, says the goal is to get all the stragglers online by September. Delays have been caused by schools struggling to put aside time for the installations or by school building projects that have prevented access.

Another problem, according to Morrissey, has been the limitations of Ireland’s broadband infrastructure. “It’s not a fault of the planning; it’s about the broadband facilities in the country. A sizeable number of schools will be on satellite, for example, simply because there is no alternative.”

He estimates that around 1,200 schools will be dependent on satellite technology that is markedly slower than fixed line and wireless. He makes the point that in Northern Ireland only a handful of schools had to resort to satellite.

Last September HEAnet also put in place a content-filtering system, awarded through public tender to LAN Communications with a product from Fortinet.

Firewalls were also installed on each school’s router, at the interconnect point with the service providers and at the front and back of the content-filtering nodes. “We can now manage filtering centrally, blocking particular types of traffic,” explains Byrne, “and we are able to respond quickly to any policy that the Department of Education or the NCTE may request.”

“There are two systems for schools,” explains Morrissey. “Option B is more restrictive, aimed at primary schools. It allows access to Scoilnet and around 5,000 linked sites. Option A is more open and designed for second-level schools. We have to make sure that nothing illegal or hateful is available. You can’t have a state organisation pumping anything harmful into the classrooms.”

HEAnet also has responsibility for delivering email services to schools and an email platform built by Dublin-based Sonas Innovation is also ready. Trials and pilots took place with a number of schools before the summer break-up and a phased rollout of a full email service is now planned from September.

“Some schools have email addresses already,” says Morrissey, “but we would hope that they will all transfer to the Scoilnet addresses. There will be benefits in terms of receiving internal email and administration.”

The next big challenge will be content. “There are two types. There is encyclopaedic reference material and then there is tagged content which is more deeply linked into the curriculum,” he says.

A framework tender is about to go out for the reference materials, designed to accommodate several suppliers of digital content. The NCTE is also in the process of finalising a digital content strategy document for the Department of Education which will outline ways of accessing content internationally and locally.

The NCTE is also hoping to persuade the department to come up with funding to embark on a hardware refresh in schools where many PCs are well past their sell-by date.

While all this is going on, the NCTE continues to recognise the importance of “teaching the teachers”. Every year, 10,000 teachers come on its courses, in their own time, to discover how technology can be tied in to the curriculum and used effectively in the classroom.

By Ian Campbell