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Advantages of being in the Loop

Imagine going from dial-up to a 1GB Internet connection overnight? It was an “amazing experience” for Nayland College, as David Maida discovers.

The Nelson Loop is a fibre-optic and wireless network that’s delivering Internet connection speeds of up to 1GB to schools in the Nelson/Marlborough region – schools who previously had not even enjoyed basic broadband, let alone speeds comparable to the best in the country.

Charles Newton, principal of Nayland College in Nelson and chairman of the Nelson Loop, says it’s amazing.

“The difference is astronomical. It’s only when you get up into the 10MB to 100MB to 1GB range that you can start doing simultaneous high-capacity activities.”
Newton believes that small-capacity broadband (around 256Kbps) can’t support the types of collaborative activities needed in today’s classroom.

“You can’t start running simultaneous videoconferences and VoIP and security cameras and streaming video and everything else across small-capacity broadband.”

The Loop began as an offer from Network Tasman Limited (NTL) to schools for them to utilise excess capacity on its fibre optic network. Newton says that NTL’s CEO Wayne Mackey wanted to sponsor a community network out of largess. It has been in full operation since September 2005 and currently connects 30 schools plus the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT) to each other, as well as the outside world. The schools don’t actually own the loop – basically, it’s a set of contractual arrangements, which create a virtual loop on the NTL network.

The arrangement provides broadband capacity that most businesses would relish but Newton says schools are first in the queue because their Internet usage is unique.

“What makes schools different is that they use a tremendous amount of international Internet; most businesses use more local traffic.”

With a minimum 10MB link, the schools on the Nelson Loop are racking up some hefty usage – up to a terabyte of international traffic a month. Previously schools would have to pay for their usage on a pay-per-data system; with the Loop, there’s a fixed monthly cost.

“We’re able to negotiate and lease capacity rather than pay for data. It’s a big difference.”

When asked what the greatest challenge has been, he simply replied: “Everything.”

“When we first wanted to negotiate connectivity to Wellington, one of the telcos couldn’t even talk to us about providing a service because a group of schools didn’t fit anywhere in their business model!”

The Loop is a 1GB to10GB network, which provides each school with up to a 100Mb connection depending on where they are. Some rural schools use a point-to-point radio connection to link to the fibre. The ultimate goal is to connect to KAREN (the Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network).

As other regions begin to formulate their own loops, such as in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland’s North Shore, Newton says they are following the protocols of the Nelson Loop, so that they can all talk to each other and potentially form a ‘superloop’. The benefit will be significant, not least the cumulative buying power of schools on a loop, which translates to cost savings and increased Internet quality. But Newton adds the biggest benefit of the loop isn’t so much technical as social.
“The key people in all these schools club together and those who support the individual schools work together to solve issues around firewalls or whatever it is that comes up.”

The aggregated network environment means that an ICT manager out in a rural community does not need to resolve networking issues on their own, work can be shared around. This peer-to-peer assistance will be even more vital as more and more dynamic Internet applications (aka Web 2.0) emerge. Newton believes schools will need to be on a loop because the issues will simply become too complex for the lone ICT manager to deal with.

“In terms of ICT, individual schools have got absolutely no hope of providing the sort of sophistication of network and access that’s going to be required in the next three to 10 years. The only way that schools are going to be able to develop, resource and support Web 2.0 capable networks is through collaboration.”

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Categories: Article, Issue 1