Upgrading Internet in Chicago Schools Is Investing Tens of Millions | State and regional

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CHICAGO – An $ 84 million plan to increase internet speeds in Chicago’s public schools has stalled again, officials say, due to paperwork to get building permits from the city.

For several months, teams have been breaking through the streets to build a new high-speed fiber optic network. Around 80 schools were to be connected by November 1 as part of the first phase of the project, but that target was pushed back to the first quarter of 2022.

The latest setback may mean more construction problems for residents and more internet problems for students, who have returned to school buildings for full-time in-person learning in August and who are due back from winter vacation on Monday. .






Teacher Hannah Chorley communicates with her students through distance learning during the first day of school at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academy of Social Justice in Chicago in September 2020.


Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune


“We operate over 300 miles of fiber across the city, originally planned as a three-year project,” Richard Burnson, director of network services for CPS, told the Tribune. “We’re a little behind schedule, but we continue to move forward and complete by 2023.”

The new network is expected to reach approximately 570 schools and administrative buildings in Chicago. Each school would be connected to two of the 11 centers spread across the city. If there is a problem with any of the connections, officials say high-speed internet would still be available.

Schools would have access to download speeds of 20 gigabits per second, Burnson said. When the project started, he said, elementary schools received 250 megabits of bandwidth. Now they’re at 500 megabits thanks to upgrades made during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most high schools each have access to one gigabit, although Burnson said CPS “is completing an effort to upgrade high schools to two gigabits, and that is expected to be completed by the end of (2021)”.

The third largest school district in the country, CPS has 421 elementary schools and 91 secondary schools. Burnson said CPS encountered “few problems” last spring with connectivity, as the district welcomed students to campuses in waves after months of distance learning. But most of CPS’s 330,000 students took in-person classes this fall, and tech tools like Google Meet video sessions can tax a system.

“We are really excited to continue our network with this new project,” said Ed Wagner, deputy head of information and technology services at CPS. “We have seen, historically, that schools consume more and more bandwidth every year they operate due to the use of online tools for education. Skyline – for example, our new digital program – we do a lot of online reviews.

CPS explored its options for a network overhaul in 2018. At the time, AT&T was providing a service, with network facilities located in Elk Grove Village; in downtown Thompson Center, a site the State of Illinois is considering selling; and at CPS headquarters in the loop.

The district then estimated that it had spent $ 19.6 million on circuit costs, fees and services, including $ 14.9 million funded by the federal E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries obtain affordable internet access.

“We had service issues with AT&T,” said Wagner. “What we felt was that this (network project) was a better way to do it to lower our overall costs and allow for better resiliency and better performance. “

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The Chicago Board of Education approved an agreement with Houston-based Netsync Network Solutions in 2019. The five-year agreement, with two renewal options for five years each, is not to exceed $ 83.8 million. E-Rate is expected to cover around $ 70.4 million. The rest of the bill will be paid with government grants and by the board, which pays no more than $ 9.8 million, according to the contract.

Burnson said the price of the project had not changed, despite the delays. A representative for Netsync declined to comment on the Tribune and referred questions to the CPS.

The first excavator was inaugurated in November 2020 – more than a year after the board of directors approved the Netsync deal and months after the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Burnson said the district has focused its efforts on transitioning to distance learning and ensuring students have devices to connect to the Internet at home.

He said the teams are now focusing on building the core network infrastructure. CPS says the first connections will be its data centers in Elk Grove Village and its headquarters, as well as 63 elementary sites and 18 high schools. A few of these schools share a campus.

Burnson said up to 240 installations are targeted for the second phase.

“The first step for us to build the network is that there is a series of basic rings that need to be established. There is a north, central and south ring connecting the 11 hub locations. These 11 hub locations therefore had to be part of the first phase in order to lay the foundations for the network, ”he said. “The selection of the other 70 sites that would be connected was based on our focus on building the south and west sides. “

The centers are located on the north side at Garvy Elementary School, William C. Goudy Academy of Technology, and Theodore Roosevelt High School; on the west side of Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School and John Spry Community School; in the South Loop of Jones College Prep; and on the south side at Morgan Park High School, George Washington High School, Richardson Middle School, Wendell Phillips Academy High School and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Paideia Academy.

Burnson said one of the biggest challenges has been getting building permits. Claims covering over a million feet of fiber have been submitted, he said, with around half a million feet approved.

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There are more than two dozen members of the city’s underground coordination office, including Peoples Gas, ComEd and AT&T, reviewing the proposals to determine if the excavation will affect their infrastructure.

“If there is a change that is required by any of these organizations, you have to start the process all over again, that way everyone is approved on that final process,” Burnson said. “We’ve worked with (the Chicago Department of Transportation) and other agencies around the city, and they’ve been very supportive, but getting the permits for the amount of work we do is still a very process. complex. “

There were also construction and street parking issues. The teams drill horizontally below the street surface to install the pipes crossed by the fiber. Burnson said there have been some complaints about temporary fixes put in place during the work’s completion.

“There were some quality issues that we resolved with the aldermen’s office, as well as with the subcontractors who do the actual construction work,” he said. “We are undoubtedly working to ensure that any impact on the citizens of the city is minimized as much as possible. “


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