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County schools use new fiber optic network to reach information highway

October 19, 2004 – the Tryon Daily Bulletin –

Technology advances have opened many new avenues for teaching and learning in today’s schools, but they have also presented an array of challenges. Not only do computers, peripheral hardware and software need to be kept up to date, all those computers need to be connected to the Internet.

For the past year and a half, Dave Scherping, director of technology and accountability for Polk County Schools, has known the schools’ connection to the information highway wouldn’t be able to handle the traffic much longer.

Consider the fact that 900 computers are in use by students and school personnel throughout the school system. By the end of last year, the phone lines that supported the Internet connection were completely filled for 60-70% of the school day.

Students conduct research using NCWISEowl, a sophisticated database purchased and provided by the State Department of Education; online encyclopedias and maps offer sound and video along with text references. Teachers and administrators have additional needs for research and communication. And they all take up space in the stream of data coursing through the schools’ pipe to the Internet.

To support all that Internet traffic, the school system had been leasing high-power telephone lines, known as T-1 lines, connecting the schools to the central office, and the central office to the Internet. But the lines were expensive, and Scherping knew he would soon need more of them if Polk County schools were to stay in step with other good school systems around the state.

Scherping had budgeted for connection costs up to $8,000 per month, using existing services. But, thanks to the new fiber optic connectivity available in Polk County through the e-Polk Inc. PANGAEA network, Scherping was able to buy all the connectivity Polk County Schools need for $3,000 a month, and that price is expected to drop, not rise, over time.

Fortunately, Scherping had been a member of the advisory committee of e-Polk, the local grass roots organization that had won a grant to develop a fiber optic cable network right through the middle of the county. The fiber optic project, called PANGAEA(PAN-GEE’-AH), would widen local access “roads” to the information highway, allowing far more traffic at much higher speeds.

It promised to be just the solution the school system needed, and Scherping, now on the Board of Directors of the nonprofit corporation, arranged for the school system to become one of the first customers. Because of their central locations, Polk County High School, Tryon Elementary School, Forbes Preschool and the Administrative offices in Columbus are now all connected directly to each other on fiber leased from e-Polk, and to the Internet through PANGAEA.

Scherping looks forward to the day when the schools’ internal fiber network can be expanded to include Polk Central and Tryon Middle School. For now, those two schools continue to use T-1 lines for their access to the central office.

“We have essentially quadrupled our Internet capacity, and at less than half the cost of what multiple T-1 lines would have required,” said Scherping.

“What’s more, we’re only utilizing a fraction of the fiber optic strands that are bundled in the PANGAEA network. The capacity’s already in place for us to expand at some date in the future, no matter how many more customers come on line.”

Scherping and other volunteer PANGAEA board members are convinced that high speed Internet access will be a major drawing card in Polk County’s ongoing economic development effort to recruit new, low-impact enterprises.

“I live and work in this community,” said Scherping, “and it gives me real satisfaction to participate in such a win-win partnership.

“PANGAEA’s unique nonprofit status is one of the reasons the school system is able to afford the tremendous level of connectivity we’re enjoying.

“And by becoming one of PANGAEA’s first customers, we’re contributing to a movement that will have a direct or indirect benefit for everyone in the county in the years ahead.”

For more information about PANGAEA, call Jeff Byrd, president, e-Polk Inc., at 859-2737 x106, or Dave Scherping, technical director, e-Polk Inc., 817-0818.

— article by Nancy Hiley