Hybrid network overcomes geographic challenges

When the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board upgraded its network to improve Internet access for its schools, it faced three challenges: geography, geography and geography.

The sprawling district covers almost 4,000 square kilometers in southwestern Ontario, much of it rural. “There is a ton of unserviced space between communities,” says James Nagle, director of business development with NetOptiks, a Brantford Hydro Inc. company that delivers high-speed Internet services over a fibre optic metropolitan area network.

NetOptiks was already supplying fibre to the board’s administrative offices, two high schools and two elementary schools in Brantford, the urban hub of the district. When Tony Costagna, the board’s manager of information technology, discussed working with a cable company to get rural schools the same quality of access as those in town about a year and a half ago, Nagle offered to get the ball rolling. “He was instrumental in bringing the people at the right level to the table.”

“We had a pre-existing relationship with Sprint Canada, (which) turned into Rogers because of the acquisition,” Nagle says. “That succession led to the logical decision that, ‘You know what? I think we can do this.’”

What resulted is a hybrid fibre-coaxial network that’s unique in Canada. A virtual private network protected MPLS/IP cable network from Rogers Cable Communications Inc. and connects to a NetOptiks central office to cover the more remote areas. The rural schools now get the same level of service — throughput of 4.5 to 5 Mbps, according to Costagna — as those in the city.

“I’d be a little sensitive (about calling it the first such network in Canada),” says Jim Detlor, Rogers’ vice-president and general manager for southwestern Ontario. “But we didn’t have a reference … we did it without one, so I’m assuming it’s one of the first, if not the first.”

Before, says Nagle, the rural school might have gotten 50 or 100 kbps. “Literally, dry copper pair was all you had available to you” in some areas, he says. “These schools were used to little service, (sometimes) weeks with no service.”

Laying fibre to every school would have been monstrously expensive, into the millions of dollars. “There’s a mammoth cost,” says Detlor.

But there was already a closed circuit TV infrastructure in place for the schools, and Costagna found the price-performance formula of cable palatable. There were some capital costs, but on a monthly service level, “we’re paying about what we were paying before,” Costagna says.

Costagna doesn’t have a huge IT crew to service the 35 schools and 11,000 students in the district.

The board has an IT staff of 14, he says. And the board very much believes in outsourcing what it can. “We’re not in business as an ISP,” Costagna says.

“The department evolved over the years. Many years ago, we did have a network technician,” Costagna says, but now that the network is set up, the only demand is for maintenance.

“The network’s grown and it’s become more sophisticated and it’s run all the time, so that’s how we’ve migrated over the past eight to 10 years to where we are now … I think you’re going to find that a lot, especially in the education field. That’s where people are going.”

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a freelance editor and writer. A veteran journalist of more than 20 years' experience (15 of them in technology), he has held senior editorial positions with a number of technology publications. He was honoured with an Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in 2000, and several Canadian Online Publishing Awards as part of the ComputerWorld Canada team.

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