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Broadband in Rural Schools

11 January 2010

Broadband in Rural Schools - Op Ed

Attention: Business, Consumer Rural, ICT reporters

By Tony Baird, CEO of Farmside

A computer and internet connection are now considered essential classroom tools. But for teachers in some of this country’s rural schools the idea of setting work based on access to the internet is little more than a dream.

The government has acknowledged the huge need for high speed broadband in the rural sector with its plans to improve internet connection speeds through the significant roll out of fibre infrastructure. For many rural schools the crucial question is how quickly can broadband be in place?

The Communications and IT Minister, Steven Joyce, in announcing the roll out, said that within six years he expects 93% of rural schools will receive fibre enabling speeds of at least 100 Mbps. The remaining 7% will achieve speeds of at least 10mbps.

But satellite technology, such as that provided by Farmside could bring high speed internet connections within months. So it’s incomprehensible why we would ask schools to wait years when a reliable, affordable solution is available today.

Fibre will bring a huge improvement to how rural schools function, but up to six years is just too long to wait. For a small number of schools, their remoteness or geographical position mean that fibre will never reach them. Children only spend 6 or 8 years at primary school and for every year their school is unable to make high speed internet connections, that child’s learning is affected. While fibre will be a huge asset to rural communities when it arrives, the use of satellites would provide a bridging technology that would give schools 10mbp connections before the new school year starts in 2010.
In remote areas, schools will have to look to satellite rather than fibre as they will not be included in the roll out.

Rural communities, and in particular rural schools, are already under pressure as populations in many areas drop. Schools can struggle to provide their students with the learning opportunities afforded to city schools. While growing up in the country offers a whole different life experience, in today’s world children need to be able to develop a huge range of skills. One way rural schools can help children achieve that is by accessing the possibilities available via the internet.

In schools with small rolls, teachers are required to teach a number of subjects and several year levels at once. Multi media distance learning can help expand what schools can offer. In the past, extra resources were provided to schools through specially tailored educational radio programmes. Now it could be video conferencing a Japanese class from Auckland. Distance learning is already being used by hundreds of remote schools in Australia in New South Wales and the Northern Territories. For those farms in New Zealand too isolated to ever receive fibre, satellites could greatly enhance home schooling or in the future be utilised in developing correspondence schooling.

Interactive learning opens up a new world for pupils, be it a virtual tour of a museum collection, an online maths games or developing a classroom website. Children could do online research for projects and for those with little more than dial up at home, or no internet connection at all, it is also an opportunity to be able to social net work ( possibly at lunchtime!) with friends in other places or build new friendships. High speed broadband would also make the most of the latest classroom tools, such as computer connected interactive whiteboards.

Getting a satellite link set up in a school to bring in high speed broadband also offers support to staff, putting them in contact with not only their peers, but the likes of the Ministry of Education and the parent community. For sole charge principals, email or social networking tools provide a huge resource for teaching and support in what can be an isolated role, albeit one pivotal to the local community. Once a dish is up and running it can also provide out of school hours benefits. For some families quite near to the school it would be possible to connect a small wireless network to surrounding homes. By allowing others to use this capacity outside of school hours, it would be possible to share some of the cost for schools, as the money involved in securing internet connections or improving speed has been a disincentive to some.

Farmside has recently upgraded Potaka School in Gisborne through a discount scheme for under $200 a month. For this they receive a Free Static IP address and benefit from speeds of 4MB download / 1MB upload. Their data usage is capped at 15GB and 10GB of this provided as a free school bonus.

Vennesa White, Potaka School principal sees the internet as a vital tool for her students and has the peace of mind that the Ministry of Education Watchdog filtering system is put into place. “All New Zealand schools should have access to high speed internet today, wherever they are located in the country. Through satellite technology our school doesn’t have to wait for fibre and we can offer our school students all the infinite benefits the World Wide Web offers”.

The idea of investing in a satellite when fibre will arrive might be seen a duplication by some, but in fact as a bridging option the costs are relatively low to get high speed broadband in straight away. All the set up infrastructure for fibre or satellite broadband is the same up until the point of plugging in. The extra cost to get the service as soon as possible is just the dish on the roof. That in most cases is not much more than $1,300 ( $1,00 for the hardware and around $350 dollars to install depending on the complexity of the job) There is an additional monthly operations fee that Farmside tailors to the size of the school.

Already Farmside has more than 30 schools on the old satellite service of 256kb/s and we are proposing to take this speed up to 10Mb/s, 40 times the current speed.

Satellite is a technology which is available right away for today’s very real need. Fibre will be a valid option for a number of rural schools in the future, but teachers and students have another whole academic year ahead of them. Satellite could provide a cost effect solution now and give rural schools a high speed broadband connection before the New Year starts. The result would be a whole world of learning possibilities for rural schools for the start of 2010.


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