Schools need $ for ’net

Demand for internet access is putting financial and technical pressure on School District 43. - tri-city newS FILE PHOTO
Demand for internet access is putting financial and technical pressure on School District 43.
— image credit: tri-city newS FILE PHOTO

School District 43’s internet system is choking on its own success and will need an infusion of cash to let information flow smoothly again.

Recommendations put forward to the board of education Tuesday called for the installation of fibre optic cable at seven high schools plus an elementary and middle school as well as new tools to monitor and regulate internet use and hiring of an additional staff person.

Trustees were told the upgrade would increase bandwidth to high-priority sites and would prevent unauthorized use of the internet, freeing it up for educational uses such as e-exams, e-books and other materials, BCeSIS (for provincial data collection), educational videos and the district’s web portal My43.

It’s a middle-of-the-road option that costs less than putting fibre at every school site but would still require a one-time $2.5-million investment plus $290,000 a year, or $785,000 annually to lease fibre over 20 years and the tools for five years. 

The proposal, approved for discussion in upcoming budget talks, would hook up all the SD43 high schools, the board office and Winslow Centre as well Bramblewood elementary and Summit middle schools, which are on the way to Heritage Woods.

If fibre were rolled out at all schools through Coquitlam’s QNet system, the cost would be $6.5 million plus $1 million for network tools, or $945,000 a year over 20 years. 

Trustees were given the less expensive option as a way of addressing costs in a budget year that is expected to be extremely difficult. But it’s likely future upgrades will be required to hook up other schools to fibre optic cable or to expand the Provincial Learning Network, the province’s high-speed internet connection.

Schools will still have to go on a digital diet and some activities not considered appropriate for education will likely be filtered out — and occasionally, this could result in legitimate uses being stopped by mistake.

“It’s important for the board to know that with these tools and new processes, there will be a shift or change from a very open and unfiltered network to one that is managed more closely,” information services manager Brian Kuhn noted in his report. He acknowledged that some activities that students “love” such as downloading music and videos would likely be curtailed.

But the measures are necessary to keep information flowing as more services and programs are going online. Under the current system, it can take 15 minutes to download a video, and teachers and students are sometimes forced to abandon lesson plans and class projects that use the internet.

“There are situations like this when the internet is now a barrier to learning,” Kuhn told the board, noting that computer purchases have been put on hold and schools aren’t allowed to approve any more personally owned computers or mobile devices on school networks.

While admitting the fibre solution is expensive, Kuhn said it is needed to build a modern education system where, currently, 2,000 students are taking courses online.

The addition of a staff person — at a cost of about $75,000 a year — was also noted as necessary for the expertise required to use the new tools and monitor what’s going on the network so “we can prevent problems as opposed to knowing about them and not being able to stop them.”

Kuhn said that while it’s possible to phase in the fibre optic solution to high schools over two years, doing so would significantly hamper improvements.

Most of the expense is the cost of laying down fibre optic cable in Port Moody and Port Coquitlam and connecting Coquitlam schools to the city’s QNet system, which it installed a few years ago when doing road upgrades. It is now leasing that fibre optic cable to internet service providers.

Still, finding money to pay for the upgrade without additional provincial funding will be difficult. The district has no capital reserve to pay for internet upgrades.

“It certainly is a lot to think about,” board chair and Port Moody Trustee Melissa Hyndes acknowledged in accepting the report for budget discussion.


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