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Illinois Century Network Partners With Fortinet to Provide and Protect K-12 Broadband Connectivity

network cables with fiber optical technology background,Communication Concept

Equality education means that every student has the same access to the equipment and tools needed to succeed academically.

Equality education means that every student has the same access to the equipment and tools needed to succeed academically. And when the pandemic forced everyone online, including all school-aged kids, the need for secure broadband connectivity became even more essential. To support equity in education statewide, the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Board of Higher Education teamed up to develop the member-driven Illinois Century Network (ICN) to provide Internet connectivity to every public K-12 school in the state free of charge.

“It is pretty clear that students who do not have access to high-speed Internet cannot participate in the modern world of rich-media, interactive content, and live interactive video sessions or streaming video,” says Robin Woodsome, manager, ICN Field Operations. “For schools across the country, the new teaching models are driving a need for more bandwidth.”

In 2019, the governor of Illinois, J. B. Pritzker, launched Connect Illinois to expand the state’s broadband capabilities, dedicating $20 million to upgrading the ICN network.


Because the ICN infrastructure was dated, the project focused on upgrading to new optical networking hardware that could support speeds up to 100 Gbps to build a broadband infrastructure to support the needs of all K-12 public schools in the state now and into the future.

Security is a key concern for many school districts, as properly implementing a robust security system is difficult and expensive, and experts are hard to find. Secure connectivity became even more critical when the pandemic hit because education institutions saw a significant uptick in ransomware and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. ICN decided to design a wide-area network (WAN) that would be a safe place for schools to communicate with one another.


ICN also sought a cost-effective firewall solution for the WAN edge, which brought Fortinet into the picture. The team rolled out a pair of FortiGate next-generation firewalls (NGFWs) to secure their traffic.

“We had to move quickly to meet the state deadline, so we implemented the firewalls in stand-alone mode,” says Andre Bouravnev, network supervisor for ICN. “That is changing. We have worked closely with Fortinet engineers to determine the best configuration of the firewalls. Since the deployment, we switched to a standby-active configuration for failover. The next step is to bring a second pair of FortiGate firewalls online in Springfield.”

Network administrators use FortiManager to streamline and centralize the configuration of the FortiGate NGFWs. They also use FortiAnalyzer for reporting and analysis of security events on the network. Bouravnev reports that the graphical user interface (GUI) navigation of the firewall and the management tools are easy to use, and that it provides an unmatched level of visibility into the system. The team is now considering transitioning both NGFW pairs to active-active status, with load balancing between the two.


The NGFWs are already exceeding expectations, providing schools with the learning environment they need to succeed. The security piece was crucial, and Fortinet was beneficial throughout the process to ensure everything was configured right for the schools.

Currently, over 200 districts representing about 1,660 schools utilize the ICN, and more than 100 of those are taking advantage of the new broadband firewall services. Others have their firewalls at the head end where their local-area network (LAN) connects to the ICN. Whether to take this layered security approach is up to district administrators.

“This is extremely beneficial to schools in underserved parts of the state, where broadband is not readily available,” Woodsome says. “Because we provide secure broadband service at no cost, we are helping those districts catch up so that they can deploy the same types of learning programs as schools in areas of the state where access is more readily available.”

For the ICN, the ability to minimize the total cost of ownership (TCO) while securing schools’ high-performance connectivity was key. Bouravnev estimates that ICN will save millions of dollars in capital and operating expenses with the Fortinet solution over the next five years.

To learn more about the project, read the full ICN case study.