The pace of technological change is faster than ever in education. With a Computing curriculum that’s two years old and beginning to embed, schools and academies are increasingly looking to the cloud for help. From curriculum software such as Scratch, through to productivity apps like Office 365, schools are increasingly looking to web based software to give students the best possible educational experience. When you throw in trends like BYOD and additional use of cloud services by the IT admin team – the importance of fast and reliable broadband for schools and academies has never been greater.
Many of us experience on a daily basis the problems that broadband can bring, whether at home or at work. If you’re with a good ISP you may generally get good download speeds, a ‘good enough’ router and a stable connection. Even if you’re in the relative minority who gets all of those things, you’ll almost certainly be suffering the ill effects of contention ratio. While sounding like something you might read about in the Financial Times, contention ratio actually refers to how much of ISP bandwidth is shared between different users. This explains why your internet connection might be rubbish at certain times of the week.
For academies and schools this means a particularly rough time for those in urban areas where they have a greater chance of sharing their connection with small businesses and home users.
It’s worth noting that contention ratio is still a problem if you get standard fibre. That’s because of the technology that retail providers like TalkTalk, Sky and Plusnet use – which is Fibre to the Cabinet. (FTTC).
What goes up must go down
We find lots of people enquire about our broadband product after complaining things are taking too long to download. Our first port of call is to run a speed test on their network (this is something you can all do even at home – Ookla is a great tool).
We often find through this process that the speeds aren’t anything to do with the bandwidth of the connection itself but can be traced back to some other part of the infrastructure. That said, customers are always shocked when we tell them about what’s up with uploads. Whilst Fibre broadband for schools outside of busy periods may deliver download speeds good enough for small village primary schools, upload speeds can often be up to 10 times slower than download speeds. Why is this? As I see it, it’s because we have a connectivity market that’s been flooded by retail focused companies trying to flog their consumer products in business packages. For many scenarios, like uploading media content to a virtual learning environment or to a Site on Office365, this kind of service means a marked impact on the productivity of pupils, teachers and admins alike.
It also means when you’re trying to stream services from outside of the school, it’s bad. If you find you’re having regular dropouts on services like Skype it’s often because you don’t have a dedicated leased line.
Following the creation of regional broadband consortia in the UK and the drive to local centralisation that came from the BSF (Building Schools for the Future) programme – we still live in a world where schools are sharing their services with other schools. The theory is sound. Your schools get a dedicated line, and you then share other things like the firewall and the filtering with other schools in the area to reduce costs. That’s all well and good – if it actually costs less and delivers on its promises.
Quite often schools find that it doesn’t cost less, and while they get a dedicated line, they don’t get dedicated services.
One school, which asked to remain anonymous, was using the most famous of all ‘Grids’. They told us that when they would make change requests, it could take up to 5 days just to receive an acknowledgement response.
What does that mean in practice? That new website the pupils have found that should be filtered immediately isn’t for two weeks; the site that a teacher needs which is incorrectly blocked can’t be unblocked – screwing up the lesson plan and educational delivery. When IT admins want to make changes to the way the firewall is configured, they face an agonising wait in addition to losing every ounce of autonomy and control over their own network. In the always on world of edtech, with apps, tablets, and potential thousands of hungry content consumers needing their daily fix – schools are increasingly realising they can’t run the risk that comes with completely losing control of a key part of their infrastructure.
Passive aggressive finger pointing
Another consumer problem that’s seeped into the world of schools and academies is the blame game. It’s not uncommon for many schools to have BT phone lines for historic reasons and then take other cheaper connectivity services from consumer players like TalkTalk. Life seems great as the Bursar high fives you in the corridor, rejoicing communally in a mutual money saving moment that keeps a couple of hundred quid in the coffers. The joy is short lived though: the connection is down. You call TalkTalk, they say to speak to BT as it’s a problem with the line. You call BT, they say the line is fine and it must be a problem on TalkTalk’s end. This continues as long as you let it without completely losing the plot.
Suffice to say, though not necessarily a technical issue, this is a real problem that many schools and academies face in the event of a problem with connectivity.
If any of the above are painfully familiar to you, it might be time to rethink your broadband solution. Your shaky broadband connection could be at the heart of a myriad of problems you’re experiencing day to day – and hopefully, with a bit of guidance and the right investment – should be relatively easy to fix. We’ll try and help you on this process with a Broadband Buyer’s Guide which we’ll be publishing soon.