Richmond County schools are looking to the sky, and "air fiber," to improve their Internet speeds by the 2011-12 school year.
"We'll build our own fiber-optic network," system technology specialist Dean Dibling said. "They're going to string it on telephone poles."
A $10-million, 10-year contract for the work was recently approved by the school board.
Officials say 80 percent of the work will be paid for through the E-Rate fund, which is supplied through a charge on telephone bills. It's made available for schools based on their eligible free and reduced lunch percentage -- which is 72 percent in Richmond County.
The contract is for 10 years because the school system won't own the line but will lease it for that amount of time. Work is expected to start in the fall and could be finished by July 2011.
School system officials said a separate fiber line in the network could be offered to the city of Augusta, allowing high-speed access to underserved areas.
County Information Technology Director Tameka Allen said discussions have occurred and a partnership with the school system is being considered, but no decision has been made because details are still being worked out.
The new network, which would probably share some existing telephone poles, would provide a one-gigabyte fiber-optic line to all county schools and would replace the system's outdated T-1 lines, found in many elementary schools.
A T-1 line, Dibling said, provides 1.5 megabytes a second -- great 10 years ago but "terrible now."
Dibling said bandwidth is an ongoing problem in many school media centers, particularly in elementary schools as they incorporate multimedia offerings.
Leslie Olig, the media center specialist for Garrett and National Hills elementary schools, knows the difficulties all too well.
"The teachers want to do video streaming, and they can clog up a system," she said. "It can cause the whole school to run slow."
She said teachers are excited about the possibility of faster connections and greater bandwidth.
Dibling said the school system has already provided an in-ground Ethernet fiber-optics connection to all high schools and middle schools, and 12 of the county's 35 elementary schools will get that faster hookup by the end of this school year.
The Ethernet connection allows a burst of up to 100 megabytes per second, but it will be replaced by the much faster "air fiber" network.
Though officials have no exact figures, Dibling said constructing a fiber-optics network in the air is much cheaper and quicker than burying it in the ground.