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Federal grant will help Colo. schools, libraries get connected

September 14, 2010

On the plains east of Colorado Springs, some rural students don’t have access to the Internet.

It’s an issue that Dave Grosche, principal of the online Edison Academy and former superintendent of Edison School District 54JT,  has wrestled with in an effort to ensure all students have access to technology. He’s considered a slow and expensive satelite hookup or having parents chip in.

But now there is good news for Colorado districts, including Edison, as well as libraries, colleges, museums and others.

Colorado will receive a $100 million grant from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to build and expand inexpensive broadband service. The state must kick in $34.7 million in matching funds.

“This project has the potential to provide a modern, 21st-century link to every school district, library and community that has been underserved because of rural location or challenging geography,” Gov. Bill Ritter said in making the announcement Monday. “It will allow schools to better prepare our students for the workforce, help create vibrant business communities throughout the state and improve access to health care and public safety.”

The grant was obtained by EAGLE-Net, an inter-governmental consortium working with the Centennial Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Denise Atkinson-Shorey, EAGLE-net’s chief information officer, said the cost savings for schools will be considerable. Some districts have been paying $800 per megabit per month for services.

Nearby states with broadband networks spend as little as $60 to $80.  

The rate for Colorado districts has not been set.

Colorado ranks a dismal 42nd among states in broadband connectivity.

Atkinson-Shorey compares broadband to a water reservoir system. The water goes from the reservoir into the city mains, then into smaller pipes that take it into your kitchen.

“So what this means is that kids in Colorado average only 55 percent of the water, or in this case, the broadband they need.”

Broadband is vital because it increases what students can do via the Internet, such as distance learning, video conferencing and streaming video,  said Brian Bylund, director of technology for Pikes Peak BOCES. BOCES are non-profit state agencies that help school districts share  costs of such things as technology, special education, migrant services and professional development. He said the broadband cooperative will especially help smaller districts.

Some infrastructure is in place in the Colorado Springs area, including two unused fiber optic networks along highways 94 and 24. ‘What it amounts to is turning it on and getting equipment on each end to make it useful,” Bylund said.

Jerry Wilson, chief technology officer for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said educational networks will be able to link  for collaborative work between institutions.

It will also help private schools such as Colorado College, notes Randy Stiles, CC’s president for information management. “We pay for connections and have a two-year contract with a commercial provider. Some school districts do the same thing. We would be interested in what we could get by connecting to state resources instead of a private vendor.”

The grant comes just in the nick of time for Rick Walter, superintendent of the 320-student Miami- Yoder School District JT60.

“We’ve just added  $250,000 in Smart Boards for our classrooms and we are very excited about the possibilities of having larger band widths to accelerate our Internet capabilities.”

In Widefield School District 3 it could be a big help for the COWS, or Computers on Wheels.

“It’s a way for us to get more bang for the buck by rolling the equipment to the elementary classrooms instead of having computer labs,” explains James Drew, D-3 spokesman. “We are excited about the broadband announcement. In these times when school districts have to watch every dollar with the state budget like it is, if we have this extra money for technology it’s a good thing.”

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