BadgerNet Puts Teeth Into Wisconsin's Educational Technology

How a statewide telecommunications infrastructure assists Wisconsin schools, law enforcement and other agencies.

by / June 30, 1997
Put the world at the fingertips of every student, and liberate teachers and students from the bounds of classroom walls. That's what Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson believes technology can do. And that's why, back in February, he unveiled a proposed $500 million investment in upgrading the state's schools.

"TEACH Wisconsin" is the latest step in Wisconsin's effort to keep their schools' quality of education at the forefront. The Technology for Educational ACHievement (TEACH) initiative is a project of Gov. Thompson's administration. Its purpose is to accelerate the use of technology in schools by increasing network connectivity and equalizing connection costs.

Gov. Thompson believes training Wisconsin's young people to use today's technology effectively will prepare them for the competitive job environment of the 21st century. One of TEACH Wisconsin's primary goals is connecting schools to each other and the Internet. The initiative aims to have direct Internet access in every public library and K-12 school by the year 2000. Another goal would give every state resident dial-up Internet access toll-free by the turn of the century.

A survey taken in September 1996 revealed more than 80 percent of Wisconsin's high schools already have limited, single computer dial-up Internet access. But nearly 13 percent of them pay long-distance toll charges for the connection. Less than 25 percent of all high schools use established circuits for direct Internet access, and less than half of these schools have that connectivity available throughout their classrooms.

TEACH Wisconsin seeks to equalize the cost of telecommunications services between users. This will give schools across the state a minimum of T1 line speed for no more than $250 per month. The line will provide direct Internet access and an option for a two-way video link.

Wisconsin schools must modernize their internal connection capabilities before they can increase their technology curriculum. TEACH Wisconsin will loan $50 million annually to K-12 schools for upgrading electrical and networking facilities. Block grants totaling $25 million for the 1997-98 school year will be made for investments in educational technology. This amount increases to $40 million for the 1998-99 school year.

BadgerNet is the statewide telecommunications infrastructure that connects state government agencies and provides the foundation for TEACH Wisconsin. BadgerNet's mission is to reengineer, manage, and integrate the next generation of networks that comprise Wisconsin's statewide network.

Since its inception, the network has evolved and consolidated under the Department of Administration (DOA). The telecommunications bureau is a program revenue operation that performs as a networking business inside state government.

DOA puts together contracts, provides communication services to their customers and keeps a sharp eye on the costs of doing business. "We have to sell to our customers at a reasonable price to stay in business," said Jody McCann, director of the Bureau of Telecommunications Management.

When the network was first created in 1968, it provided voice-only services for state agencies. During the early years, it consisted of point-to-point (PTP) dedicated circuits carrying voice traffic, and later, Systems Network Architecture data. By 1987, all data traffic was consolidated on the WAN. "We steadily consolidated the network and brought more users into it," said McCann. "If you can aggregate traffic, your unit costs are going to come down."

In 1994, the decision was made to replace the private PTP circuits with a publicly available communication service provided by AmeriTech. Frame relay packet technology was introduced to the WAN, accompanied by the growing pains inherent in a technology transition. Although frame relay had been available for three years, it had not yet begun its explosive surge in popularity. "We were early on that curve," said McCann.

Migrating from PTP to frame relay created transport problems. The original private network was a star configuration emanating from Madison to destinations throughout the state. Because frame relay is public, AmeriTech wasn't permitted to transport it across Local Access Transport Area (LATA) boundaries. Backhauling the data using an inter-exchange carrier was dismissed as too expensive.

AmeriTech decided to place a frame relay switch in each LATA and make the entire state part of the frame relay cloud. The amount of business AmeriTech received from the state was judged sufficient to cover the cost of the switches. This benefit also allows smaller businesses within the state to use the statewide frame relay cloud.

In January 1997, a contract was signed with Norlight Telecommunications to install an OC-48 SONET (2.488Gbps) ring around the state. An OC-12 (622 Mbps) portion is currently reserved for state use. "We can buy SONET services in OC-3 increments, or we can buy DS-3s between any of the points on the ring," said McCann. Sufficient fiber-optic cable exists for future growth. Expanding the ring from OC-48 to OC-192 is an electronics-only change.

The SONET ring has 11 points of presence in the major Wisconsin cities. The network design includes all state agencies, university campuses, technical schools, 430 school districts and other public entities. The SONET ring bandwidth is anticipated to initially support 1,100 DS-1, 20 DS-3, 300 DS-3 video and 10 OC-3 primary connections.

The network will have more than 450 Cisco routers in all sizes and configurations. Every router has a minimum of one permanent virtual circuit, and many have more. Within the state agencies, this data is distributed to Windows and Windows NT desktop computers attached to Novell and Windows NT servers. Videoconferencing for training, remote hearings and telemedicine will benefit from the increased bandwidth provided by BadgerNet's SONET ring. Eventually, the 30 compressed video sites connected throughout the state by ISDN will migrate to the high speed backbone.

Several state agencies provide quarterly training by remote video to reduce costs. "Avoiding the drive from Superior to Madison saves a lot of windshield time, hotel expenses and per diem costs," McCann said. Pilot programs are in place for juvenile hearings by video, where the court is several hundred miles away from the institution. Telemedicine is now being used between university hospitals and correctional institutions.

BadgerNet is well prepared for the future. DOA is using the latest technology and the economies of large-scale purchasing to solidify their infrastructure. This guarantees the BadgerNet foundation will carry the heaviest of loads for years to come.


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