Life in the (very) fast lane;Cover feature;National Grid for Learning

15th October 1999 at 01:00
One thing is certain in this world, that your online connection won't be fast enough. George Cole reports.

Newham Council seems to have achieved the impossible - it's offering local schools a high-speed Internet connection at a relatively low, fixed cost. A bold decision by the council to invest in a new telephone technology means its schools will be zipping along in the Internet equivalent of the M4 bus lane while most schools continue to crawl in the slow lane.

Anyone who uses a telephone modem to link their computer to the Internet soon discovers that it can be a very slow, frustrating and expensive business. Many schools are using faster ISDN digital telephone lines under BT's Schools Internet Caller (SIC) scheme, but these are only twice as fast as most telephone modems. As Paul Whiteman, Newham's head of educational IT, explains: "About two or three years ago, we put all our schools on to the Internet using a simple telephone connection, to give some staff and pupils use of the Net. We tried using ISDN, but found that it was not fast enough."

Another reason for rejecting the ISDN route was a restriction that meant schools using the ISDN link outside of 8am to 6pm started to incur charges. "We wanted to use the Internet for after-school activities and community use," says Whiteman.

Newham Council decided to look at the alternatives and, in late 1997, it consulted interconnection company Mase. The technology it chose was xDSL (Digital Subscriber Line). Being up to 16 times faster than an ISDN link, but using ordinary copper telephone lines, in top gear xDSL could deliver the entire contents of a newspaper in seconds and, like a leased line, its connection is always on.

Steve Tyler, a partner of Mase, says: "During the trials we had 60 computers in one school on the Internet together and there were no problems."

Mase began installing the xDSL lines in Newham's schools in late 1998 and the aim is to have all the borough's 13 secondary and 64 primaries using the technology by the end of 2001. The schools will be linked to the council's high-speed leased line for fast Internet connection and Newham will spend about pound;3 million on the project.

The benefits are twofold: not only do schools get faster connections, they also receive a permanent connection for around pound;600 a year. Whiteman is convinced of the benefits of the switch, but he adds: "You do require some technical support in a project like this and the quality of the service can vary. But more importantly, you need the co-operation of all your local schools and not every authority is in such a fortunate position."

Newham's move highlights a problem which more and more schools face. When most users were simply sending text emails, slow-speed modems were adequate, but now graphics, animations, still images, audio and even video are sent off into cyberspace, the traffic crawls if your connection is slow. Another problem is that the more computers are online together, then the slower the connection speed. Around 16 computers per ISDN line is considered the maximum.

It is these reasons that are forcing the Government to look at how secondary schools can get faster broadband connections. Tim Clark, RM's Internet marketing manager, agrees that ISDN is too slow for many secondaries. But he adds: "For most primary schools, ISDN is more than adequate, and if you need faster speeds, it's possible to bundle ISDN lines together. There aren't many applications out there that require high-speed connections." Fred Daly, Becta's NGFL director, agrees. "For most schools, ISDN is the first stop. But it's important that before you move on from it, you are confident that you really need a faster connection."

Attention is turning to a telephone technology called ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line), so-called because it offers one high-speed connection from the Internet to school (up to 16 times faster than ISDN) and a slower speed from the school's computer (about twice as fast as ISDN) to the Internet. BT plans to roll-out an ADSL service next spring and BBC education has been involved in ADSL trials in London. The BBC developed a home-learning package on Spanish language and culture, and also worked with four schools, which had access to an educational website and video footage.

Hendrik Ball, of BBC Education's digital media division, says:

"We have a vision where multimedia resources are available in every classroom at the touch of a button, and that means using broadband connections."

However, ADSL has its critics. Adrian Carey, director of education services at Edex, the educational Internet service provider, points out: "ADSL is fast in one direction only and not everyone will be able to receive the service." And BT plans to roll-out the service to only 400 of its 6,300 exchanges and your Net link needs to be within several kilometres of the local exchange to receive the service. Perhaps a bigger objection could be the price: BT plans to offer ADSL to service providers for pound;40-pound;150 a month, so retail prices will be much higher. And to protect the lucrative leased line business, some commentators speculate there may also be a limit on the amount of data that can be used in a month.

Luckily, schools can consider alternative technologies such as cable (see box left). And if there is one certainty in the online world, it is that the connection you use today will need to be much faster tomorrow.

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