Ten Questions Schools should ask Broadband Suppliers


Education broadband services are not the same as domestic services.  Before considering any changes, schools should ask the following questions...


Connection Bandwidth: 


Bandwidth usage varies with pupil age, size of school and the educational emphasis given to ICT.  The BESA summary of September 2009[1] reported that primary schools record an average bandwidth of over 4 Mbps and secondary schools nearly 20 Mbps.  One local authority recorded 7 Mbps for a primary school of 400 pupils and for a large ICT aware secondary school, 49 Mbps was recorded.  Contracts signed today need to be flexible enough to accommodate both a range of different requirements now and the expected growth in requirement over its term.


Question 1

Schools have a range of different bandwidth requirements now and can expect usage to grow at different rates; evidence from the National Education Network[2] shows that we can anticipate a bandwidth growth rate for schools of between 30% p.a. and 50% p.a.  Explain how you will accommodate this range of bandwidth requirements and expected growth in usage during the period of the contract.   How do I know that your service will still be adequate for my school in 5 years time?


Design suitability: 


Contention ratio is the number of users sharing a connection.  Most commercial broadband services expect users to share capacity, with home services generally experiencing a contention ratio of 50:1 and business broadband 20:1.  There is little point in buying an “up to 10 Mbps” service if you are sharing it with 49 others.  A school’s bandwidth must be uncontended at the point of use, in other words no-one else shares its capacity between school and the Internet.  In practice, the core of a network can be designed with a contention ratio of 3:1 if it is kept below 70% capacity because not every school will max its bandwidth at all times. 


Also, it is becoming ever more important that bandwidth is symmetric.  Schools use learning platforms, videoconferencing and remote backup, all of which require good upstream bandwidth.  Occasionally, recorded upstream bandwidth now exceeds downstream.   Schools have moved more quickly into audio and video than other public services.  Videoconferencing is probably the most demanding area where, for example, the ability to synchronise lip movement with sound may be important in languages.  Latency is the time taken for messages to move around the network and is critical for videoconferencing.  A total round trip time between 50 ms locally and 150 ms over the whole national path is an important guideline.


Question 2

My school needs to be able to rely on the suitability of my connection, local and core design contention ratios will affect performance.  Also, I expect to use applications that require good upload speeds and am aware that firewalls, filtering systems and email can add latency to networks.  With particular reference to contention, latency and symmetric access speeds, what are your guarantees of performance?  


Security and Safety



Education networks have very specific requirements for security and safety.  Schools requirements for security will include:

·      Pupils and staff using the system – inappropriate content and contact.

·      Personal data and coursework – data loss or access by unauthorised persons.

·      ICT systems – from accidental and intentional attack, internal and external.

A balanced approach, including policy, education and systems strategies, will be required to protect these elements so that systems are usable with access to appropriate materials being as open as is reasonably possible.  Security features should not limit legitimate and planned educational access but should protect users of different ages and different capabilities.  Similarly, filtering systems should be responsive to the changing maturity of users and the demands of different subjects and levels of courses

Question 3

Explain how your systems protect information, pupils and staff whilst maintaining usability.  How can I be sure that you can provide sufficient flexibility for my school’s needs?

Question 4

ESafety in my school is more than a set of filtering services.  Learners are taught how to behave in online environments and their behaviour is moderated through acceptable use policies and staff supervision.  Explain how your filtering systems are responsive to the changing maturity of our users and the demands of different subjects and levels of courses.  How can my school manage the filtering so as to provide security for vulnerable people whilst allowing appropriate access to those with specific research needs? 


Reliability and Availability


A decade ago, the initial enthusiasm for on-line learning nearly stalled as school networks, connected via ISDN, were overloaded or the circuits proved unreliable.  Now, a school broadband connection should be available over 99.9% of the time.   Confidence in this availability is also important if teachers are to plan on-line learning.  Regular, monthly, service reports and the ability to restore services rapidly if they do go down reinforce this confidence.   


Question 5

Internet access is as important as electricity for my school.  Explain how you monitor and report activity on your network, how you discover faults in the service and how you will manage response times to get us back into service.  As a minimum, following a break, can you restore service from the start of the following day?


Advice and Support


Expertise in wide area networking is still relatively rare, as is expertise in securing networks and safeguarding users.  School staffs require responsive and sensitive support services that complement the skills of the local ICT support teams. 

Question 6

Tell us how you give us continuing support when we are worried about our network security or about the safeguarding of our pupils.  What happens if we suspect that something is wrong or if our local ICT support people leave or cannot solve a problem?


Educational Applications


The wide area network is only the transport layer for the learning services required by schools.  These may include:  Videoconferencing, Email Relay, Firewalls and security measures, Filtering, Anti Virus, and Learning Platforms.  Services may be provided by the local authority or third parties, or the school itself, all of which may require configuration of the broadband service. 

Question 7

How will your service cope with the wide variety of learning services we require now and in the future?  How will configuration change requests be made and can you provide a price list of typical changes?


Cloud Services


Like many small businesses, more schools are using services hosted in the ‘internet cloud’.  Services are often hosted in ‘green’ data centres that provide security for the data whilst reducing the school’s carbon footprint.  More recently, local authorities are hosting administration applications in data centres or are providing access to other cloud solutions, including email, remote backup and LAN support.

Question 8

How will a commercial service enable my school to take advantage of developments in off-site, hosted, services provided by the local authority and others?


The National Education Network


The National Education Network comprises the 13 schools’ broadband networks in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  The NEN community drives the development of digital communications infrastructures and services to support the safe, effective embedding of ICT into teaching and learning.  Issues such as safeguarding and copyright are managed.


NEN offers a number of unique advantages for schools:

·      Secure and safe environments where teachers, pupils and parents can work confidently together.

·      Networks sized and maintained to meet the bandwidth and media demands of the education sector, within limited budgets.

·      Cost savings through aggregated demand, for example for internet transit.

The NEN is a partnership between schools and local authorities, working in regional collaboration and with JANET (UK).

Question 9

Partnership and collaboration between schools is increasingly important as schools share vital resources and learners need access from multiple sites of learning, from libraries and from their homes.  The National Education Network offers confidence, access to resources and the reassurance of being part of a UK-wide push to develop and improve resources.  What access to the National Education Network can I expect from your service?


Affordability / Value for Money


Naturally schools will want all of the above at a low cost.  It is important that schools realise that they make considerable demands on a network; typically schools may generate more than four times the traffic of their local authority!  Commercial Internet service providers may say that they can provide the same service at lower cost but it is unlikely that the service would be comparable, even in simple matters such as contention and in security. 

Question 10

Overall, I am minded to remain with my local authority solution but, with an eye on budget pressures, could be persuaded to switch to a more affordable solution.  What reassurance can you give me that your commercial service will give better value for money into the foreseeable future?

[1] BESA ICT in UK State Schools 2009 summary report www.besa.org.uk/besa/documents/view.jsp?item=1326

[2] National Education Network Publication: Building a Broadband Entitlement www.nen.gov.uk/media