With the planned expansion of a broadband network in Columbia County, officials say computer services in schools should get better and cost less.
The county recently won a $13.5 million stimulus grant from the federal National Telecommunications and Information Administration to expand broadband Internet availability throughout the area. The grant includes installing 220 miles of fiber-optic cable by 2013.
Once installed, the lines will transport signals directly to each school from the system's data center in Appling, rather than the schools sharing a single line.
Once the fiber-optic network is in place, dedicated 10-gigabit lines will extend from the data center to each school, said James Van Meter, the school system's technology director.
"Right now, it's like (Interstate 285) at rush hour," Van Meter said. "Well, we're going to I-285 on steroids. We're going from a two-lane interstate to a 20-lane interstate."
Virtual teaching environments will be possible. Gifted students in the system's smaller schools often must travel by bus to a different school to take part in gifted classes. Van Meter said that once the broadband network is established, those students won't have to leave their schools.
"They'll have a camera and a monitor so they can be seen and see their teacher (at a different school)," Van Meter said. "They'll be able to raise their hand and be recognized. They can actively participate like they're sitting in that classroom."
Van Meter said the concept would work for any pupil wishing to take a class offered at another school.
About five years after schools have dedicated lines, the system will move to a "cloud computing" concept, meaning software and Internet resources will be shared, Van Meter said.
Classrooms will be equipped only with monitors and keyboards, Van Meter said. A 10-gigabit fiber-optic line will make it possible for pupils and teachers to share a dedicated server at the data center. Each school will have its own server.
The school system replaces about 1,000 computers each year and spends about $1 million annually buying new computers and purchasing software for each new computer, Van Meter said. Between $40 and $50 is spent each year for each computer in software licensing fees, he said.
Much of those costs are eliminated by pupils sharing off a single server, and the need to replace hard drives decreases dramatically.
Though Van Meter could not state a specific dollar amount in savings, he said it should be substantial.
"We are setting ourselves up to really take the school forward as far as cost savings down the road," he said. "And we're moving forward in what we can deliver to the students."