Experts in leading innovation and change in IT

School broadband: the bandwidth conundrum

When the Labour government was elected in 1997, they used the slogan “Education, education, education”. And one of their first policy documents was “Connecting the Learning Society“, a bold proposal which called for every school, college, university and library to be connected to the Internet by 2002, with every pupil having their own e-mail address. Thus the National Grid for Learning was born.

I was fortunate enough to be working in Birmingham at the time, and we became one of the 14 National Grid for Learning Pathfinder authorities. It felt sometimes like finding a path through a minefield, but within a year of the 4 year NGfL programme beginning, we had connected every school in Birmingham to the Internet, with all secondaries and a few primaries having 2Mbps, and all other schools with an ISDN2 connection at 128kbps. It quickly became apparent that those speeds were going to prove inadequate as bandwidth use doubled every eighteen months, and by the time I left Birmingham in 2004 we had already upgraded most secondary schools to 10Mbps, and most primary schools were using at least ADSL2 connections offering speeds of around 2Mbps.

15 years have passed since that bold vision was set out in “Connecting the Learning Society”. It is now an expectation that fast Internet access should be available throughout all schools. And in much of the country that is the case. As an aside, while writing this I’ve just had a phone call from my internet service provider, Sky, in response to my registration of interest in their fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) broadband offering. They are just about to start making that available, and it is available in my area. So, for £20.00 per month, I can take advantage of their unlimited use FTTC service, which their system tells me should deliver approximately 40Mbps download speeds, and 2Mbps upload. How many schools have speeds like that, at least on the download side.

Anyway, I digress. The main thrust of what I am talking about here is whether schools have been keeping up with the appropriate speeds. With bandwidth use doubling every 18 months (consistently), a continuation like that will mean that secondary schools might need 800Mbps by 2015, and even small primaries something like 80-100Mbps. Who is planning for that? Are local authorities still doing that work? Can they afford to? And are they offering value for money right now?

A number of commercial schools broadband providers are coming into the market, looking to compete with local authorities and regional broadband consortia (RBCs). They all offer a variety of leased line and DSL services, and some have bonded FTTC services which will deliver up to 160Mbps downstream. Their prices are no doubt very keen. What should schools be doing?

I suppose the first point to make is that for schools taking most ICT and non-ICT services from a local authority, it is important to be clear on which of those rely on the broadband. Can you answer these questions:

  • Does your school use the local authority finance system?
  • Do you use a corporate HR system?
  • Do you share data with your local authority?
  • Does the ICT support service provide you with remote diagnostic support of your ICT provision?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then you may introduce a new set of problems if you move away from their network. Have they made that clear to you? Have they threatened you with any additional charges if you try to access those services via a different broadband provider? Have they refused to let you access services via another Internet provider, citing security concerns?

And there are other questions to consider:

  • When moving away, how will you get your Internet filtering service?
  • Does your new provider offer you those services?
  • Can you provide them yourself?
  • How much would that cost (including in staff time)?
  • Do you already have any services that might help with that?
  • Do you use a learning platform?
  • Is it provided by the local authority?
  • What of e-mail and other collaboration services?
  • Which services will you have to pick up and deal with in house?
  • And, with the bandwidth doubling every 18 months conundrum, will you be able to keep growing your use on these alternative services?

So, is it all about money? Or is it about a range of different factors? Which are most important? It’s going to be up to you to decide. And where do you go for advice? Is your local authority best placed to offer you that advice, or should you look to more independent advice. We can help. Just let us know what your needs are and we will be happy to help. We have a range of services available which can help you to decide, and you might well be able to save yourself a lot of money by taking advantage of them. We can provide support for individual schools or groups of schools looking at their options for Internet service provision. Give us a call – or visit our contact us page!

  1. Great post, Paul. I find the biggest grey area seems to be around contention ratios and schools knowing exactly what they are getting for their money. Only if this is understood then can people make the educated decision to move away. For example: the network manager of the school I was supporting yesterday thought they were getting the full 100Mbps of their deal. He ran checks during the day and the actual speed ranged between 50-70 Mbps – this came as a shock to him!

    • Thanks Paul. It’s tough to know how to find out where the bottleneck is in a situation like that. It could be contention in the network, or it could equally be local network issues, or the local proxy server could be maxed out. Or, indeed, something else entirely! But I agree that knowing what you are getting is key, and it’s good to see some useful advice being put together in some parts of the country on what to look at. Not the same everywhere though.