Wireless trumps fibre at Manitoba schools

Terago Networks is used to putting up fixed wireless networks in urban centres, but the company broke new ground recently when it built a miniature version of one of its city networks to connect a Manitoba school district.

The Louis Riel School Division, based in Winnipeg, sprawls over 113 square kilometres and 43 buildings. The school division’s network, completed last fall, consists of a 100Mbps ring running around five high schools and the Louis Riel board office with other schools feeding into the ring sites over 10Mbps links.

The ring is split into two traffic streams, so if one radio connecting to the ring fails, traffic can still travel on the surviving stream. “We actually had a radio fail and we were unaware of it until Terago told us, because the traffic simply picked another route,” said Brad Biehn, director of information systems with the school division.

Merging WANs

Before installing its Terago network, Louis Riel was operating over a mish-mash that at one time had been two separate fixed wireless WANs. The school division is the result of the July, 2002 amalgamation of the St. Boniface and St. Vital school divisions. One division had been running a network provided by Terago, while the other relied on a network from another wireless provider.

Getting the two networks to work together was a real challenge, Biehn said, because they were based on different network architectures and used different gear.

“First we clumped them together any way we could to start exchanging data,” he explained. “Then as time went on we looked at how we could modify each network in order to more efficiently control and manage the systems. It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.” In addition to sorting out the technical IT issues surrounding the amalgamation, Biehn had to deal with two separate WAN contracts.

At the time the Louis Riel division was created, one of the old divisions had just signed a new contract with Terago.

The other division had a contract that was set to expire in one year. Biehn extended the older contract to match the expiration date of the Terago deal, so Louis Riel could move to one unified network when the two older contracts came up.

Fibre or wireless?

Biehn’s next decision was whether he’d go with fibre or fixed wireless for Louis Riel’s new WAN.

Although Biehn seriously considered fibre, too many of his schools had no nearby fibre routes. To get fibre to those schools, Biehn would need to get approval for rights of way and undertake costly digging and fibre-laying projects.

Ultimately, he said, wireless was much more affordable and Biehn doesn’t believe he’s losing anything in terms of quality of service.

“I think now I have a deployment that equals any kind of fibre I could have installed, at one-fifth the price of fibre,” he said. “And I’m not going to be susceptible to a water main break that cuts my lines.”

Having made the decision to go with fixed wireless, Biehn next decided that Terago was the provider that best met his requirements for speed, redundancy, reliability, scalability and price.

“I told them I didn’t fit their business model, but they’d have to accommodate my business list and that’s what they did,” he said.

Terago operates fixed wireless networks in 23 Canadian markets. Typically the company builds a wireless ring in each market and connects individual customers into that ring. Louis Riel is one of Terago’s largest deployments to date, said Bryan Boyd, Terago’s president and CEO.

“It’s a good inroad into the educational arena and it’s a good win over fibre,” Boyd said.

Switching over

Terago and Louis Riel signed a contract in the first half of last year. Terago began setting up the network in the summer and finished last October. Now the school division is able to run its payroll, student information, human resources and accounts receivable packages over the new WAN.

Thanks to the large amount of bandwidth, Louis Riel is also experimenting with voice over IP, looking into unified messaging and considering synchronous tele-teaching at some of its schools.

“Some high schools are small and don’t offer all electives,” Biehn explained. “Calculus, for example, is a very popular course for a very small segment of the population. A small high school may have two to five students who want to take calculus, but you can’t staff two to five students.” Now with the higher-speed network, those students may be able to participate in a calculus class at a larger school over the network.

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