Top marks: Partners bring fibre to the classroom

Technology is reshaping the education sector and pushing the limits of learning and its delivery. Here's how one channel partnership is harnessing full fibre to remodel the future of education.

The education sector is undergoing a technological transformation and Exa Networks, CityFibre's primary education partner, is at the forefront of this digital transformation. "Education sector requirements have shifted over the last few years with schools increasingly needing higher speed connectivity to get the best out of online teaching resources," said Mark Cowgill (pictured above), Director and co-founder, Exa Networks. "Meanwhile, the emergence of academies has created a new dynamic in terms of purchasing with more opportunities for educators to seek out service arrangements that fit their particular needs."

As demand for bandwidth-intensive resources grows Cowgill expects more and more schools to introduce gigabit capacity services. "They're choosing connectivity options that offer the flexibility and capability to increase speed to match demands," he added. "Our DarkLight product is suitable for these schools, giving them the ability to increase their bandwidth within minutes at any time and for as long as needed. Schools also want secure connectivity at all times, and they're often looking for high upload speeds to make it easier to use cloud back-up services."

Andy Nash (pictured left), Head of Public Sector at CityFibre, noted that the alternative provider has been supplying dark fibre connectivity via its partners to a growing number of universities over the past year. "Demand is driven by the need for higher bandwidth of course, but it's additional benefits such as multiple fibres and full control over scalability for the future that really influence the decision making process," he explained. "We're also seeing more local authorities choosing to include schools in their procurements irrespective of the academisation programme."

Investing in dark fibre infrastructure to serve schools as well as other public sites maximises the benefits of a full fibre network investment. It also leaves schools free to focus their IT budgets on other priorities and serves to improve education across the whole region. That said, many schools are concerned with budgeting and planned cuts, which means that buying new technology isn't necessarily as much of a priority as it has been in recent years, noted Cowgill.

"Many of those wanting to introduce new technology are therefore looking for cost cutting solutions," he commented. "That could mean reducing time spent on things that could be handled quicker by technology. Or, increasingly, reducing what they're paying for various services."

ICT buyers in education face ongoing cost versus bandwidth challenges due to the relentless rise of curriculum dependencies on Internet and IT use, and a constant pressure on available budgets. This is prompting them to take a much longer-term view of ICT investment, one that will derive savings over a lifetime and make the entire school or college ecosystem more efficient.

"That's exactly what full fibre solutions can deliver," stated Nash. "By providing easy and affordable access to dark fibre CityFibre gives partners the choice and control they need to build and deploy services that are tailored to meet the needs of technologically demanding Higher and Further Education establishments, and more budget challenged primary and secondary schools. And of course, as CityFibre continues to accelerate its UK Gigabit City build, so the opportunity for digital transformation deepens right across the education and public sector as well as for businesses in those same regions."

Fibre services are more important to schools now than ever - and this will only increase, believes Cowgill. "Even before considering the high bandwidth requirements of BYOD and tablet schemes (reliant on wireless connectivity), there's an overwhelming amount of genuinely useful material for students online and we're encouraged by the number of schools that are actively working to get the best out of these resources," he added. "Over recent years connectivity has become significantly more powerful and less expensive, and we expect things to get even better with the increasing availability of dark fibre."

Future trends will also bring far more coding, applications development as well as distance and cloud-based learning, some of which will take place beyond a typical classroom environment. For these types of activities to be successful across multiple classes simultaneously, high capacity and scalable bandwidth will be increasingly essential, pointed out Nash. "The trend towards learning outside of the classroom using iPads and cloud will continue, leading to a greater dependency on ubiquity, resilience and performance of connectivity," he added.

"Wireless is a way to derive maximum use and flexibility from investments in full fibre and high capacity networks. But it also enables students to break free from the class room. This brings enrichment, flexibility and variety to learning for the benefit of all students and staff. Reliable wireless connectivity also opens the door to innovative new technologies and services that can help schools become safer, more efficient and far better managed."

A number of school districts are coming to the end of their connectivity contracts with local authorities over the coming months, so many schools will be looking to improve the services they're getting, prioritising higher speeds, increased reliability and better prices. "We also feel that there's going to be an increased focus on value added services such as content filtering, with schools looking to get the best possible offers from their providers," said Cowgill.

"Pure fibre connections, such as our DarkLight service, are a major area of opportunity for those looking to provide to schools. This technology enables the improved speeds that schools are looking for, while often allowing resellers to offer schools better pricing than other options - a real no lose situation in a lot of cases."

But getting a foothold in the education sector is a tough task for many resellers. "The main challenges generally relate to a reseller's ability to appear on key public sector framework agreements that universities and schools use to procure ICT services," said Nash. "This tends to restrict some of the smaller players as the costs and accreditations required to get a position on these frameworks can be expensive."

Cowgill also underlined the challenge faced by smaller players. "It's traditionally quite difficult for resellers to approach schools," he said. "Most schools in any given area see their contracts renew at the same time, so there's a short period of opportunity for those looking to sell to the education sector, particularly considering the relatively long contract periods involved. Beyond that, it's often difficult for schools to actually talk to an unbiased source about the advantages of the various services available to them, so sites like EduGeek are invaluable in this respect."

CityFibre has a powerful message for the education sector. "The CityFibre model is one of inward investment, the stimulation of competition into next generation gigabit capable networks and progressively making fibre solutions available to all," stated Nash. "That starts with the education sector. All of our schools should be able to benefit from the very best in connectivity and bandwidth speed. We should be equipping schools with the right infrastructure solution to support their needs.

"The JANET framework which procures dark fibre infrastructure has been successful in serving higher education requirements. We understand that this framework will be re-procured this year, potentially giving more companies the opportunity to bid for a secure position on the framework.

"We also encourage local government to procure on behalf of schools. By combining the civic estates of the local authority with the schools or higher education estate, substantial economies of scale and savings can be derived for the public sector. CityFibre has a number of examples where this shared platform proposition has been procured by local government, such as our Gigabit City projects in York, Kirklees and Edinburgh."