Niles schools plan to install fiber optic network

Published 5:27 pm Tuesday, December 18, 2007

By By ERIKA PICKLES / Niles Daily Star
NILES – The wireless Internet connection used by Niles Community Schools is in desperate need of an update.
Not only is the current volume more than the wireless network can handle, but the interference from home wireless networks causes more headaches than one can imagine, according to Niles Superintendent Doug Law.
"Our plan is to install a fiber optic network that will connect all the buildings to the high school," as the high school will act as a hub, Law said.
The fiber optic network would increase the capacity to a thousand-fold and, according to Law, will reduce a number of problems. However, adding the fiber optic network will not come at a cheap price.
Law said he expects the project will cost between $400,000-$450,000 and should be complete by the beginning of the next school year.
Thankfully, the school system recently received roughly $600,000 from Sprint for leasing its unused bandwidth.
"Years and years ago, the government was giving out licenses for broadband frequency access. In addition to granting broadband access to commercial providers, they also granted it to school systems. Of course, this was around 30 years ago and no one had any idea what broadband access was or what the value of it was," Jim Craig, Niles Community Schools curriculum director, explained.
The five largest school districts in Berrien County – Benton Harbor, Coloma, Lakeshore, Niles and St. Joseph – were all awarded access to the bandwidth. However, it was not used often and for years has just been sitting there.
"We were contacted by our school attorney a few years ago and were told they had discovered this system was actually worth something. Since it was not being used, we were told we should start negotiating with different providers," Craig said.
Plenty of providers showed interest in the bandwidth, including Sprint, Comcast, AT&T and others.
"The very first offer was for around $10,000. I was ready to sign on the dotted line then," Law said. "It's a good thing I waited though, because it turns out it was worth a lot more."
After all was said and done and the negotiating was complete, Niles Community Schools found out they would receive around $600,000 from Sprint.
"That was a true blessing. We didn't expect to get anything close to that amount," Law said.
So far, the money has helped improve the computer labs at Eastside, Howard and Ballard elementary schools. The rest of the money will go toward the fiber optic network.
On Monday, the board approved AmComm Telecommunications of White Lake for the engineering portion of the project at a cost of $254,675.29.
The school is working to partner with Lakeland Regional Health System to help pay for the fiber optic run from the Westside Administration Building to Cedar Lane. Lakeland would like to eventually connect to Longmeadow Medical Suites.
The school is also working with the City of Niles regarding lease space on the poles for the cable.
"This is the next step for us when it comes to improving technology for our students," Law said.
In other news, the board has decided to pick up the difference and pay for the students in the Early Learners program who were not covered by the state.
"We have 128 kids in our Early Learners program and found out the state was only giving us money for 77 kids. We are taking about a $200,000 hit from the state, but we cannot turn kids away, or pick and choose. The board has decided to pay out of the fund balance," Law said.
Also on Monday, it was announced that the Wood Foundation donated $20,000 for classroom technology at Niles High School. The gift includes audio-visual equipment and related supplies.
In addition, the Wood Foundation also donated $12,000 for the purchase of new band equipment at the high school.