A multi-year effort to build a statewide network has resulted in a service that has not only lowered internet costs, but has increased bandwidth, improving the ability for schools to share educational courses across the state.
Educational institutions in the northeast corner of Nebraska were once paying $1,200 per megabit per month, totaling around $300,000 per year, for Internet service. Today, thanks to a decade-long networking project that joins government and educational entities on one high-speed IP network, they now pay less than $2 per megabit, per month, according to Walter Weir, CIO of the University of Nebraska.
Since its start, Network Nebraska has utilized local providers, while leveraging collaboration and buying power of, the state, the university, the state college system and K-12 schools. "And we probably have an account with all of them to pull off this network," said Nebraska CIO Brenda Decker.
While the network was started initially by state law, it is not state-owned, Decker said. Rather, each of the participants pay for the operation and management of the network in addition to their own costs, and have a say via advocacy organizations and an annual survey. "It is truly a statewide project and not a state project," Decker said.
As the network grows, Nebraska continues to have one of the lowest Internet rates in the country. This year, schools can buy Internet service at less than $1 per megabyte. In addition to lower Internet costs, the network has also increased bandwidth, improving the ability for schools to share educational courses across the state.
The multi-function and secure IP network is made up of two segments: Network Nebraska-Government, which serves state agencies and other local governments, and Network Nebraska-Education, which serves the university, state colleges and K-12 schools.
Network Nebraska-Education has one of the highest educational participation levels of any statewide network, and provides a platform for online educational applications, testing, content, distance learning exchanges and administrative videoconferencing. "Almost everything we're doing nowadays requires some form of networking behind it," Weir said.
Efforts to build a network began in 2003, but the idea for a shared network came about in 2004 when Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, then lieutenant governor, chaired the Nebraska Information Technology Commission (NITC) to make the state more efficient.
NITC, which consisted of various educational leadership counsels, focused on issues surrounding the growth and cost of videoconferencing in K-12. That's when the state and the university began discussing their own independent networks and looked for opportunities to reduce overlap, said Decker.
Decker and Weir, both members of NITC's Technical Panel, headed discussions on how to meet the needs of those interested in participating in the network. Those needs included connections, fees and rates for Internet service throughout the state, and ways to share the network and the agreements needed to make it work, Weir said.
Once the network was up, it became hugely successful, according to Decker. In 2005, discussions focused on how the state’s 92 school districts could opt in. The state legislature passed a bill that required the state CIO to develop and maintain the network and offer it to all educational entities, including private schools, by July 1, 2012, with funding for distance education provided through the state’s lottery program. But the rest of the network project is funded by the members themselves via transparent membership fees, and not by government, according to Weir.
While paying out of pocket confers ownership, having no upfront funding presented challenges. In the beginning, the CIO's office went school to school throughout Nebraska to explain the concept of a statewide network and to ask organizations to join with their own money.
"It was very difficult in some cases to explain: 'This isn't the state coming and taking something over this is the state coming in and trying to provide you with some assistance and us with some assistance,'" Decker said.
Once participating schools had examples of money saved and additional services procured, the state had an easier time moving the network forward, Decker said. In 2009, the participating educational institutions took control of operational and budgetary decisions, making the network “theirs and not the state’s,” said Decker. In 2012, the CIO’s office met the mandate, offering the service to all schools and signing up about 80 percent of them.
Decker describes the network as a conglomeration of contracts that the state and university share to provide services to various state entities. Weir likens the network infrastructure to a fishhook laid across the state with the curve on the eastern end. Some of it already existed when the project started, while other parts were augmented or built by the state's telecommunications providers as the network doubled in length and tripled in bandwidth.
And the network keeps growing. This year, K-12 has increased its bandwidth by 80 percent, and when combined with higher education means an increase of 100 percent overall. Network Nebraska-Education supports around 25.87 gigabytes of bandwidth for K-12 and higher education.
The network works well now, though there are variables regarding its future viability, such as whether providers will continue to play well together and also for the network to maintain reasonable costs while capacity grows as servers and applications move to the cloud.
A new umbrella organization has also been created -- the Collaboration Aggregation Partnership (CAP) -- to keep momentum going by continuing to build the network, develop partnerships, define services, design the backbone and manage the network.
The network now also shares services for a statewide Internet, network management, traffic shaping and intrusion prevention.
Today, more than 97 percent of all schools use Network Nebraska-Education, and the network supports and delivers 500 video distance learning courses to high schools and colleges. The CIO's office also works with schools so they can take advantage of E-rate filings -- a federal program allowing schools to be reimbursed for telecommunications expenses, according to their free lunch program.
A 2013 estimate by NITC found the network reduced the average cost of wide area network circuits by 39 percent over five years, and the unit cost of statewide Internet access by 98 percent over six years.
So how does the future look? Decker and Weir report that network participants are in talks about joint data centers, cloud computing and ways to back up data. "The most interesting thing is that these discussions are not state/university driven." Decker said. "The schools are bringing these ideas to us."
Participating schools are also engaging more among themselves to share information and best practices. And that, in part, is why the network has done so well -- participants have held a shared vision of what success looks like and have pursued it together, Decker explained.
"Network Nebraska has been a somewhat 'volunteer' effort that many people are willing to participate in because they understand the value they have received and they are willing to invest the time to keep the project successful," she said.
All that time and effort has not gone unrecognized -- in 2013, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers selected Network Nebraska-Education as its top project in the category of Cross-Boundary Collaboration and Partnerships.