Billings is the largest city in the state of Montana and continues to experience growth thanks to a diverse economy. Billings Public Schools serve approximately 16,000 students and manage one of the largest computer networks in the state of Montana. The school district needed a network solution that could handle the amount of users on the network.
Connecting Students in the 21st Century
The Billings Public Schools technology department was tasked with upgrading the existing network infrastructure throughout the district’s 22 elementary school sites. Outlined in the district’s five-year-plan is the Billings Public Schools Technology Plan, which includes mandates for:
- Providing teachers with current technologies, training and support.
- Creating opportunities for students to become active participants in their own
- Using technology as a tool to improve the education of their students to prepare
them to become future leaders in the global community.
“A bond was passed that included an allocation for technology upgrades,” says Larry Bybee, Network Manager, Billings Public Schools. “We wanted to rewire our elementary schools because they were running on old, failing copper wire.”
Bybee initially set out to implement the large-scale project using a traditional infrastructure based on copper wiring, but soon realized the bond wouldn’t cover the costs.
“As we started to research the project, we realized we couldn’t upgrade all of the schools because the cost to rewire them all was too great,” Bybee says. “Then our technology consultant, Kris Good of the CTA Architects Engineers, suggested we check out GPON.”
GPON, or Gigabit Passive Optical Network, is a cost-effective, high-performance fiberbased solution that has several advantages over traditional copper-based implementations, including:
- Decreased power consumption
- Faster time to implement
- More cost effective
- Minimal space requirements
- Easier to install
- Fewer system disruptions post-installation
Through his extensive research, Bybee learned that by deploying a GPON LAN, Billings Public Schools could expect to benefit from significant cost savings, reduced square footage required to implement a large-scale system, and rapid speed of implementation when compared to a similar copper-based solution.
Bybee worked with Kyle Brucker, Director of Technology, Billings Public Schools, to draft a proposal for the Billings school board outlining their plan to implement GPON at a single school site. Arrowhead Elementary would act as a test case before a full-scale rollout across all 22 campuses in the Billings Public Schools district. Ultimately, the success of that initial test site resulted in a district-wide rollout plan at the elementary school level.
A Flawless Solution that Reduces Technology Costs
As a publically funded school district, the Billings Public Schools technology department must work within budget limitations as defined by the funds available through a public bond and federal rebate programs. Tasked with the goal of updating the technology platforms across all 22 elementary schools in the district, Bybee realized he had to identify a solution that was both cost effective and long term.
“Part of our proposal included competitive bids on implementing copper versus FiberLAN GPON, and we saw significant savings with the GPON solution,” says Bybee.
Initial estimates to deploy a traditional category 6 copper-based solution came in at $205,000, for a single school site, McKinley Elementary School. In stark contrast, the GPON installation using Zhone Technologies access equipment cost approximately $65,000, for a savings of $140,000. Using that cost basis as an estimate, Billings Public Schools saved approximately 3 million dollars in total by upgrading all its school sites with a fiber-based LAN system.
“It’s impossible to ignore such significant cost savings,” Bybee says. “Thanks to the Zhone solution, we should have the funds to implement upgraded Internet platforms across our entire roster of 22 elementary schools.”
The Billings Public Schools deployment is based on Zhone Technologies’ GPON platform, with Zhone’s zNID 2624P and 2608T indoor GPON Optical Network Terminals (ONT) at the foundation of the implementation. These four-port and eight-port ONTs have unique configurations that support the various video, data and other Internet services the Billings Public Schools population requires.
The Zhone Technologies solution provided substantial cost savings to Billings. Traditional copper-based implementations can result in significant re-wiring efforts that typically require not only expensive copper wiring, but also the participation of a general contractor to repair walls and install telecommunications closets to house the largescale equipment. In contrast, Zhone’s GPON implementation includes materials that cost less and require less square footage.
Zhone’s zNID 2624P and 2608T GPON ONTs are unobtrusive and smaller — about the size of a notebook — than traditional telecommunications equipment. The Billings implementation included installing ONTs in classrooms and administrative offices, and require just a single telecommunications closet per school site.
By eliminating the need for additional telecommunications closet across each site, Billings realized further savings, ranging from $5,000-$15,000 per closet, depending upon the school site. This savings translated into available dollars to be spent across the entire district at the elementary school level.
In addition to the significant cost savings realized with the GPON implementation, district IT staff discovered that deployment time was dramatically reduced. The IT team’s past experience indicated that copper-based installations could take months. In comparison, Brucker and his team were able to install the GPON system at a single school site in about three weeks.
Generally speaking, the team required two weeks to lay the fiber and an additional two to three days to install the ONTs on-site, and then remotely program the ONTs. As their proficiency increased, the team was able to overlap deployments, enabling the team to install Zhone’s GPON solution at four school sites over a two-month time period.
From a long-term perspective, the fiber used in the Billings implementation has a 25- year warranty, which means that between the installing contractor and Zhone, the fiber is covered. Compare that to copper-based solutions, which typically require updating every five to seven years as manufacturers update or phase out the technology, and further cost efficiencies are realized. This “future proofing” allows Zhone’s GPON fiber solutions to be easily integrated into future developments in technology and data transmission, allowing Billings to continue to offer its students and staff leading-edge solutions.
The flexibility of Zhone’s GPON solution enables teachers to be more self- sufficient in the classroom. Live jacks were installed in multiple locations in each classroom. This allows teachers, who frequently reconfigure their classrooms during the year, to simply pick up and move their ONT and their desk to another area in the classroom without having to call in a technician for assistance.
“One of the biggest compliments we can give Zhone’s GPON solution is that since the rollout, teachers haven’t complained about the network and the tech support they require has dropped off to almost nothing,” Brucker says.
One of the unexpected benefits of installing Zhone’s GPON infrastructure was the realization that the network ran so seamlessly and without interruptions that IT didn’t have to be on call as often. The remote programming aspect of Zhone’s ONTs also means that IT staff no longer has to travel across the district to troubleshoot or make updates onsite.
“At one point, we anticipated having to add headcount to our IT team to service our elementary schools’ networks,” says Brucker. “We were pleased to discover that GPON is so reliable, we don’t have to add another network expert, which is a cost savings of nearly $100,000 per year.”
“GPON is a self-contained, flawless solution,” says Kris Good. “It really is out of sight, out of mind.”
Government Dollars for Education
The technology team realized further economic advantages by receiving funds from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries (E-rate) program. The E-rate program was developed to make telecommunications and information services more affordable for public schools and libraries by offering discounted telecommunications and Internet services to eligible institutions. The E-rate program works in tandem with the efforts of states and local governments to bring advanced, 21st century technologies to public classrooms and libraries.
“The E-rate program allowed us to stretch our bond dollars even further,” says Brucker. “But, ultimately, it was the cost savings advantages of Zhone’s GPON technology that will allow us to upgrade all 22 elementary schools within our district by 2017.”
As the Billings Public Schools look ahead to further GPON implementations at the middle and high school levels, the IT team will continue to rely on Zhone’s FiberLAN GPON solutions for cost-effective, rapid deployments.
“Our goal is to maximize technology so we can provide an environment for our students to learn and develop their technology skills,” Bybee says. “With Zhone’s affordable solutions, we will continue to offer those high standards across our district.”