N.J. schools get 'Optimum' performance for less money

School districts everywhere are strained these days. A bad economy has made taxpayers loath to pay for rising Jim Bartholdschool costs and at the same time parents are demanding that teachers step it up and train students to better compete on the world stage.

New Jersey schools are hardly atypical. New Gov. Chris Christie has announced some dramatic across-the-board cuts in state aid, forcing school districts to drop programs and lay off teachers.

That's why it was news--good news, actually--when the Wall Township Public School District said it was able to upgrade its telecommunications system to 100 Mbps bi-directional speeds using a cable operator, or, more specifically, a cable operator's dedicated business arm.

Cablevision Systems' Optimum Lightpath gave the Central Jersey school district what its incumbent service provider, Verizon, could not--and at a price that Verizon couldn't touch, said Jeff Janover, technology director for the school district, who even now seems genuinely surprised at the bargain he got.

Janover started by seeking a Verizon quote for a DS3 45 Mbps circuit. He then went to his local cable provider, Cablevision, and was directed to Optimum Lightpath and that's where things got weird but fun, he said.

"We got a quote from them [and] for a 50 Mbps fiber optic drop. It was a relatively inexpensive proposal so I asked if we could go any faster and they said you can go as fast as you want. The next level up was 100 megabits per second," he recalled.

The speed, he said, more than doubled what Verizon was offering and the price was about $80,000 less than what the school was paying for the 3 Mbps ATM circuit it had long outgrown as a feeder for its advanced private fiber one gigabit local network between 40 application servers throughout the district. Since the school's network is thin client-oriented, students, teachers and other school personnel can log in from anywhere in the world and access the system as if they were in the classroom.

It was obvious that 3 megs weren't going to power that kind of use or the scads of new Internet-based applications teachers were discovering as learning tools. It was just as obvious that a bankrupt New Jersey government wasn't going to step in with any money.

"We knew that we needed to do an upgrade and we were battening down the hatches looking to see what that cost would be," Janover said. "We were not happy about having to spend anything extra."

To his delight, he not only isn't spending anything extra, he's saving $80,000 a year and getting 33 times more speed.

Cable operators often bristle at being called pipes. Janover doesn't care; for him Optimum Lightpath is a big fat pipe.

"From my perspective it's a commodity service. It doesn't matter who you connect through as long as your connection is reliable," he said. "I fully expected to stick with Verizon but I felt I needed to get the Optimum Lightpath guys in and talk to them."

Now he's glad he did.

"Schools in New Jersey are in dire straits," he said. "I could not believe that I would be able to increase the level of service that I'm getting now and save a fortune." -Jim