Several area stakeholders in education are talking with Network Nebraska about building additional Internet infrastructure in northeast Nebraska with the hope of reducing Internet costs and increasing reliability for the region’s schools.
The parties, which include ESU 2, ESU 7, Northeast Community College and others, are currently working on a Request for Proposals that could be put out as early as July 1. The earliest the project could be implemented by is July 1, 2019. However, the specifics and future of the project are still very speculative, according to Ed Toner, the chief information officer for the state of Nebraska.
“It really depends on how the bids come in,” Toner said, adding, “This is aspirational on our part. We’re taking the right measures now to actually hopefully see the benefits next year.”
Network Nebraska is a statewide consortium of more than 290 education entities, including K-12 schools and public and private universities. Those entities work together “to improve their telecommunications, share services and lower costs,” according to information provided by Network Nebraska. The consortium was created as a result of LB1208, which passed the state legislature in 2006.
Network Nebraska has fiber optic infrastructure, which acts as an internet-carrying “backbone,” running throughout the state. All of Nebraska’s school districts, ESUs and public colleges and universities are connected to that backbone to receive internet services, according to Tom Rolfes, the education I.T. manager for the office of the chief information officer and Nebraska Information Technology Commission.
School districts take up the costs for circuits that connect to them to a “network aggregation point” in one of five locations in Nebraska, Rolfes said. Those aggregation points are all connected by Network Nebraska’s state-sponsored backbone infrastructure and, consequently, to the Internet.
Northeast Nebraska faces “on average, the highest monthly cost” for the circuits that connect school districts to those aggregation points, Rolfes said.
That’s in part because the nearest aggregation points to northeast Nebraska school districts are in Lincoln or Omaha, and many of the smaller internet and phone providers near those districts lack the infrastructure to reach those connection points on their own. In those cases, a second company, often referred to as a “middle-mile” company, must help fill in the gaps. The school districts are financially responsible for both of those companies, Rolfes said.
The proposed project would build a new aggregation point somewhere in northeast Nebraska that could theoretically allow more local providers to connect schools to the backbone without middle-mile companies.
“Our goal is to extend our backbone into the northeast section,” Toner said. “We’re making the assumption that shorter distance will make an impact on cost. That’s an assumption on our part. And increased competition, of course, is always good for the price.”
Even if that cost assumption doesn’t come to fruition, the project should increase network reliability for area schools. Extending the backbone into northeast Nebraska will yield more redundancies in the system, meaning if certain pathways to the backbone shut down, others will still be operational.
“This is a pretty good bet for us to be able to meet that challenge to bring down the cost,” Toner said. “But nevertheless, even if we weren’t able to meet that objective, the reliability that we’d be able to bring to that region would be greatly increased.”
ESU 2, ESU 7 and several other locations are being considered as the location of the new aggregation point, Rolfes said.
Corey Colvin, director of technology at ESU 2, has been representing the ESU in the talks about the Request for Proposals. He said that ESU 2 is excited about the possibility of housing an aggregation point. He also added that the ESU has not gone out of its way to talk to local districts about the project at this point, as everything is still speculative.
“It’s too early in the process to get them involved in it,” he said. “I’ve been burned a couple of times in the past where I say, hey this really cool thing is coming up and I mention it, and they get really excited. And then for reasons out of my control ... the project falls through.”
The lowest cost in the state for 100 megabits per second (mbps) for internet is around $279, Rolfes said. He guessed that the average in the state is probably around $1,000.
“But in the northeast region, we could have costs as high as $1,800,” he said. “Same service, might even travel the same distance—two different companies, two different environments and the cost is almost nine times higher.”
The Scribner-Snyder school district pays about $955 for 100 Mbps, according to numbers provided by ESU 2. Logan View pays $1000 for 150 mbps. In terms of dollar amounts, the highest costs in ESU 2 are incurred by Bancroft-Rosalie and North Bend, which pay $2,376 and $2,592, respectively, for 200 mbps. That translates to $11.88 and $12.96 per mbps, respectively. The highest cost per mbps was in Wisner-Pilger, which came out to $16.25, or $1,625 for 100 mbps. The lowest ESU 2 costs are logged by Cedar Bluffs and Mead, who each pay $450 for 150 mbps, or $3 per mbps.
However, those Nebraska school districts may, in practice, be paying less. They can get significant discounts on their internet costs through a federal program called E-Rate. That program can provide anywhere from 20 to 90 percent off on internet services. The number is based on whether they are a rural school district as well as the number of students receiving free and reduced lunches.
In Scribner-Snyder, for instance, superintendent Ginger Meyer said that “internet costs are high” but that its effects aren’t drastic because of the E-Rate program.
“I can’t really say that it costs the taxpayers a lot of money here because we apply for E-Rate money,” she said. “That almost covers everything except for two months out of the year.”
Several community colleges, including Northeast Community College, would also benefit from the project and are not eligible for E-Rate. Network Nebraska can also receive a discount through E-Rate on building statewide backbone infrastructure. That discount would amount to 67 percent, Rolfes said.