Hoosiers seek knowledge over fiber
Terry Forkner and George Lamar
As part of its regulatory reform plan known as Opportunity Indiana, Chicago-based Ameritech will make it possible for Indiana elementary and secondary schools to offer interactive video distance-learning programs. This $150 million project will tie together rural and urban school districts with museums, zoos, universities, government agencies and libraries.
Ameritech is virtually 100% fiber on the interactive video network, which includes 1000 strand miles of fiber. When the network is completed, it will include 20,000 to 30,000 strand miles of fiber.
The use of fiber allows an efficient link with potential partners in the network. For example, in a pilot project with Smithville Telephone Co., Ellettsville, IN, the latter is using digital signal level 3 (44.736-megabit-per-second) equipment for its portion of the network and Todd Communications equipment for the classroom. Smithville Telephone recently completed the installation of 41 miles of fiber, which will allow Springs Valley High School and the Crane Naval Depot, both in southwestern Indiana, to access the network. Smithville Telephone has also negotiated a DS-3 connection between Bloomington and Indianapolis.
The Ameritech network consists of singlemode fiber with an optical to electrical interface on the customer premises that hands-off full-motion National Television Standards Committee baseband video and audio to the customer. Using this television standard as the common denominator allows access to DS-3, digital carrier system level 1 (1.554-Mbit/sec) and sub-T1 speeds. Where possible, Ameritech`s existing network infrastructure is leveraged into the distance-learning network within the central office and the local loop. A network interface is located at the customer premises. This can be extended inside the building to the service interface, where the customer connects with the NTSC equipment.
One of the network`s primary goals was to lower the cost of entry barrier for distance learning; a start-up cost that was too expensive for most school districts would have been self-defeating. To date, the entry barrier cost has decreased from approximately $100,000 per school to $25,000 per school--and should decrease even further.
The customer`s fiber loop terminates in a switch at an Ameritech central office, which is then interconnected over standard interoffice fiber facilities to intermediate and tandem video switching units. The construction of the network is managed in the same way as the company`s regular plant deployment--using Ameritech employees or contracted labor as location and workload require. As needed, the schools then select a vendor of their choice for inside plant wiring.
The customers lease the interactive video service by the hour or month. An easy-to-use, menu-driven reservation system enables the customer to establish immediate, on-demand videoconference sessions. To reserve time on the network, the customer uses a touch-tone telephone, an ASCII dumb terminal or a personal computer with terminal emulation.
The network includes interfaces for quad screen display and far-end camera control. Quad screen allows four sites full-time on one television screen, and far-end camera control allows the instructor to control the camera in the remote site.
An echo canceller is installed on the classroom equipment to negate the returning audio signal, and cameras are fitted with a pan-tilt function, allowing the teacher to use the camera without outside help. Indiana`s Thomson Consumer Electronics, the successor to RCA`s consumer electronics division, provided many of the camcorders, television monitors and 52-inch rear projection screens used in the pilot project. Video Images Inc. is providing the classroom equipment to schools that receive distance-learning grants from the Corporation for Educational Communications. This equipment includes video monitors, cameras and audio systems.
The distance-learning classroom equipment is as easy to use as off-the-shelf consumer electronics. The network planners reasoned that the closer the classroom interface mimicked the audio-visual equipment available in the average home, the easier it would be to convince teachers to make use of the equipment. The Ameritech program also funds technology coordinators who are responsible for instructing teachers in the proper use of the equipment and, in the process, creating teacher evangelists who will help spread the word to their colleagues.
Carl Zager, an English teacher in the Monroe County middle schools, coordinates the program for the Monroe County Community Schools Corp. in Bloomington. He explains, "My job is helping teachers get their jobs done, which is teaching kids."
Two-way interactive distance learning is taking hold in southern Indiana. Rex Kamata teaches a Japanese language class to students at the Edgewood High School in Ellettsville. The classes are transmitted to a remote site at Bloomington North High School through the Smithville-Ameritech DS-3 link, where seven students take Kamata`s language class.
"With this technology, it`s like you`re talking to the people on television, without any delay," Kamata says. "Real-time communication enables us to teach foreign language to a remote site. There are a lot of drills and communications practice. If there`s a delay, this would be impossible." In May 1994, the German classes at Edgewood and Eastern High Schools were connected with Edgewood`s sister school in Cologne, Germany. The students in Germany took a tour of the Ford Motor Co. plant in their community, and Ford allowed the students in Cologne to use the plant`s studios for a 90-minute hookup with their counterparts in Ellettsville.
Through a DS-3 link between Bloomington and Indianapolis, students in Monroe County are able to participate in electronic field trips to the Indianapolis Zoo, the Museum of Art and the Children`s Museum. Interactive real-time video for educational applications was demonstrated in 1994 when Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis sponsored its Dino-fest conference on the Indianapolis campus. The conference brought together some of the biggest names in U.S. and Canadian dinosaur paleontology.
A live two-way video link was established between the universities` conference and the city`s middle schoolers. Students were able to engage in a two-hour give-and-take with the conference participants. The students were also linked to the Children`s Museum, the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Library (where there was a model of a 9-foot Utah raptor and a large fossil display) and to the Indiana University Medical School where the students watched technicians do a CT-scan of a dinosaur egg.
The videoconference was transmitted to the Indiana Higher Education Telecommunications network and to WFYI-TV Channel 20, the local public television outlet. Channel 20 beamed the session to a satellite overhead, and the videoconference was then broadcast all over North America by NASA, giving students across the continent a taste of what the Indianapolis middle schoolers were experiencing.
Endless educational applications
Educational applications for the network are endless. Because the network is compatible with existing and future technology, the potential for future expansion is both exciting and unlimited. Tom Donahue, vice president for engineering at State College, PA-based Broadband Networks Inc., which has provided Ameritech with transmission equipment for several Indiana distance-learning projects, said, "You`re dealing with an infrastructure that is truly going to be supporting interactive video needs for the next 50 years. The capacity of the fiber means that all the electronics changes that occur over the next 50 years will not affect the infrastructure. Once you`ve got the fiber in the ground, it stays there."
Ameritech began building a two-way, real-time interactive video distance-learning network in 1991 when it worked with the Indianapolis Public Schools to develop a 600-strand-mile fiber network that links 93 Indianapolis Public School locations.
In 1993, Ameritech developed a second distance-learning program in partnership with Smithville Telephone Co. The Partnership Network ties together rural school districts south of Bloomington, IN, with urban districts in the Bloomington area. It links 10 elementary and high schools, Indiana University, Indiana Vocational Technical School, and the school district administrative offices.
The approval of Ameritech`s Opportunity Indiana program by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission in June 1994 provided the company the opportunity to expand the Indianapolis and Bloomington networks to create a fiber network for its service areas throughout Indiana. Under the terms of the Opportunity Indiana agreement, Ameritech is committed to placing, by the year 2000, $120 million in broadband infrastructure to every interested school, hospital or major government center in its Indiana service area. It is also providing $30 million to an independent non-profit organization, the Corporation for Educational Communications, which will provide grants for schools to help finance equipment and other expenses associated with the use of the network.
Ameritech`s distance-learning network in Indiana operates on a switched, broadband network that allows connectivity among different technologies. The tandem video switch interconnects local customers over analog fiber and provides gateway access to narrowband and broadband digital transport systems. Video conferencing sessions are established through an online reservation/scheduling system.