Charter school benefits from free fiber to the classroom

Charter school benefits from free fiber to the classroom

By STEPHEN HARDY

Educational institutions frequently benefit from donations of money or books. But the Downtown Middle School in Winston-Salem, NC, received a unique donation from the Partners in the Promise program: a fiber-based data-communications network.

3Com Corp. (Santa Clara, CA) started the Partners in the Promise program to elicit the aid of Fortune 500 companies to help wire public schools. The company joined with AMP (Harrisburg, PA) and Winston-Salem`s Wake Forest University to complete the Downtown Middle School project, which saw 28 classrooms and a computer lab connected via fiber-optic cable donated by AMP.

The four-story building that houses the two-year-old charter school was built in 1918 to hold freight near the local rail yards, according to Al Edwards, director of marketing for AMP Premises Systems and Services. Classrooms were constructed by erecting drywall or other thin material to a height of 8 ft. The floors are 18 inches thick, which presented an installation challenge, he says.

AMP designed the network with a centralized architecture. The main closet is installed on the first floor, with patching closets stacked above it on the other three floors. A 72-fiber cable serves as the vertical backbone between floors; three quad-fiber cables branch from the backbone to each classroom. Each classroom contains a Supertack II hub from 3Com with 8 to 12 ports. In the computer lab, the horizontal fiber cables terminate in a pair of SuperStack II Switch 1000 hubs. Enhanced Category 5 copper cabling runs from the hubs to clusters of laptop computers. The computers, IBM ThinkPads, were donated by Wake Forest.

Installation services also were "donated" during a community wiring day. Teachers, parents, students, and members of Wake Forest`s International Center of Computer Enhanced Learning performed most of the cable pulling, under the direction of a Wake Forest student who served as project manager. "We sort of showed people how to pull fiber, how to terminate fiber," says Edwards. "And actually, they were very involved in helping pull it and getting into the wall boxes and everything." However, AMP did bring in one of its local installation partners to "clean up" and test the network afterwards, Edwards adds.

AMP suggested the use of fiber all the way to the classroom to ensure the longevity of the network. "The whole idea was to put a cabling infrastructure in place that could handle anything they need for the next 15 years. So the idea was that they could just swap boxes out at the end of the cable and they`d be up and running and never have to touch the infrastructure again," says Edwards. In fact, the main reason copper was used for the last 15 ft of the network was that the donated ThinkPads didn`t have fiber-compatible network interface cards (NICs).

Electronics availability also affected other aspects of the network. For example, the 62.5-micron fiber cables terminate in the classrooms with ST connections. Given the company`s push into small-form-factor connectors, why didn`t AMP use the MT-RJ? "We really just did that because of availability at the time," Edwards explains. "We started this project back in June and just did not have the availability on a lot of product yet. But we left room to make that conversion fairly easily. Had we started the project now, we definitely would have gone with the MT-RJ. But at the time we were getting this project put together, the parts just were not readily available."

Edwards sees the network at the Downtown Middle School as an example for other schools looking to upgrade their networks. "Essentially, there are three levels of networks to put in from the structured cabling side," he says. "You can put all copper in, you can put a fiber in with copper horizontals, or what we say is the best to put in is fiber all the way to the classroom. And things like the new MT-RJ initiatives that are coming online are actually getting people to put lower-cost drivers and interfaces on the hubs and the NIC cards and that sort of thing, which I think will really help drive people toward that avenue."

While the lower costs associated with fiber-optic networks will increase the technology`s attractiveness to cost-conscious network planners, Edwards says that changing trends within the philosophy of education networks also will spur adoption of fiber.

"I think schools, instead of being cost driven, now are being value driven," he surmises. "So instead of looking at the initial installation cost, [they consider] what this thing is going to cost to maintain and run over the next three to four years. And that thinking pattern I think is changing the way they really look at how they implement technology in schools today." q

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