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Fauquier County Public Scool division works to improve WiFi

Tuesday, May. 6 | By Hannah Dellinger
Photo by Adam Goings. Quinten Shibusawa (in red) and Hannah Preston (in gray) use their wireless devices in the KRHS library. The county has spent approx. $50,000 upgrading the wifi within FCPS schools to accommodate more users.
Photo by Adam Goings
Fauquier County Public School students will see a small improvement in their school’s Wi-Fi capabilities by the beginning of the next school year.

After the school division implemented a “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) policy, in which students are allowed to use smart phones, tablets and personal computers on school grounds last year, it was clear that the Wi-Fi infrastructures were not built for that kind of capacity. With the flood of Wi-Fi requests, the Internet slowed down significantly and not every student was able to connect. FCPS Technology Director Louis McDonald set out to improve the Wi-Fi networks the best he could with the budget at hand.

“By the beginning of next year the students will see some improvement,” said McDonald. “We will have a faster firewall that can handle more capacity into it and we will have a much bigger pipe to the Internet. We shouldn’t see as many lags as we currently see.”

McDonald negotiated an aggressive contract with a new service provider, Comcast, which will be able to expand their footprint in the county with the cable that they will place in the schools and potentially spread the network to surrounding homes and businesses.

For the same price of the service that the school is currently receiving, Comcast will increase tenfold the bandwidth of the current pipe to the Internet in the county’s three high schools.

“The National Board for State Technology Directors estimate that you need about 100 megabits bandwidth for every 1,000 students,” said McDonald. “So, we would need about 1.2 gigs on our pipe to be what they would consider a reasonable amount of Internet. Our bandwidth last year was only 150 megabits out to the Internet, which is very small. So next school year, we’re going from 150 meg to 2,000 meg, or 2 gigs.”

McDonald said that the FCPS firewall has been replaced and it’s capacity increased in order to help better process the requests to log onto the Wi-Fi.

“It’s a five-year-old firewall and it was built with the intent that only the staff and a small subset of students would be going through it,” said McDonald. “It was running at 50 percent capacity before we went BYOD, then we saw a jump to 70 to 80 percent capacity, which means it’s slowing down. So not only do we have a small pipe on the Internet, every Internet request is check through the firewall and the processing of the requests is slowing down, so the response time can be slow as well. Because of this, we’ve decided to invest in increasing the capacity of our firewall.”

Although the bandwidth and the firewall have been improved, the McDonald said that the key factor, and the most costly, is to install more Wi-Fi access points in the schools.

“We’ve hired a consultant to come in to the three high schools and revaluate how the infrastructure is laid out for Wi-Fi, which could mean increasing the number of access points,” he said. “It could mean that there will be one or two in every classroom and an increased number in the hallways.”

McDonald said that increasing the access points and keeping them up to date is very expensive.

“To give you an idea of how much it costs, Kettle Run is one of the better outfitted schools, because it’s the newest. The equipment there is already somewhat aged. To replace the out dated equipment there we had a quote a year ago of about $50,000,” said McDonald. “So you figure, if we need to increase what’s there, maybe double it, you’re looking at a cost of about $100,000 to outfit that high school to support a BYOD implementation.”

McDonald said that the FCPS telecommunications budgets totals $250,000 per year. The destination of about 90 percent of that funding is predetermined and most of it goes towards licensing software and maintenance agreements for hardware. The proposed FY 2014/2015 budget does not include any additional funding for expanding the Wi-Fi infrastructure.

“If we want to increase our telecommunications capabilities, we will have to increase our telecommunications budget,” said McDonald. “We are managing what we have and replacing what we can, but to increase the capacity will require more cash. Once we know what the lay out will be for a wireless increase, we will make that a priority item.”

Students and staff within the school system are challenged each day by the lacking Wi-Fi availability.
Quinten Shibusawa, a junior at Kettle Run High School, said that he relies on the Wi-Fi to check his email. He is currently training to be an EMT, and he receives important emails from the fire department regularly. Since there isn’t cell service within his school, he has to get on the Wi-Fi or use a plugged-in library computer to get online.

“In classes, sometimes we can use the Wi-Fi, but if you’re not connected, you’re kind of out of luck,” he said. “I was in a class today and my teacher told us that if we had Wi-Fi we could look something up, but half of the class wasn’t connected, so only half of us were able to look it up.”

Hannah Preston, a junior at KRHS, said that she is one of the lucky few who are able to connect first thing in the morning. She explained that once the network is full of connections, no one else can access it.
“If you get here after 7:15 a.m., you’re doomed,” she said. “You won’t connect.”

Kim Ritter, the one of Kettle Run's librarians, said that the library just acquired 25 Nexus 7 tablets as instructional aids. She said that the library staff will have to connect the tablets to the Wi-Fi first thing every morning, to ensure that they will get on the network before it is full.

“If we don’t have those on in the morning, then they can’t connect during the middle of the day,” she said.
Ritter also pointed out that many students don’t have access to the Internet at home, and rely on the school’s in order to do their work.

“The library gets a lot of students who either don’t have smart phones or if they can’t get logged onto the Wi-Fi,” she said. “Many times all of our computers are being used because they are hard wired. We have a population of students who don’t have Internet at home and sometimes it’s not an economical thing, sometimes it’s geographic.”

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