Ann Work Goodrich, Wichita Falls Independent School District via Times Record News

The Wichita Falls Independent School District recently completed a two-stage project to “future-proof” its wide-area network – an important step now that WFISD board members are making long-term facility plans that may include building new schools and consolidating, renovating or closing other schools.

The result is the most flexible, reliable, and robust network that WFISD has ever had – and one that simultaneously saves thousands of taxpayer dollars every month.

To do it, WFISD installed its own dark-fiber network, allowing the largest school district in North Texas to control its network and infrastructure.

WFISD built a total of 29 sites for its dark fiber project in a two-stage process that began in the summer of 2018 and was completed in the summer of 2019. The installation of its own fiber connecting all its schools to its four hubs frees WFISD from dependence on other networks.

In fact, once the project was complete, and WFISD’s contracts with its previous network expired, and the dark fiber was finally lit — or used – the monthly cost to the district for all its high-speed connectivity dropped from $48,000 per month to $8,000 per month. That saves $40,000 taxpayer dollars every month.

WFISD met the only potential downside of the project – the large up-front cost of a dark fiber network – with strategic use of federal and state money.

The Federal Communications Commission encourages school districts to install a dark fiber network because of its eventual cost-savings potential. So the FCC offered school districts federal E-rate funds based on the number of students who qualified for free and reduced lunches.

With 80 percent of its population qualifying for free and reduced lunches, WFISD became an 80 percent district, meaning E-rate funding paid 80 percent of every dollar spent on WFISD’s dark fiber network. Then, the state offered a matching funds grant that picked up 19 percent of the remaining 20 percent in costs. That left WFISD to pay a mere 1 percent of the large, up-front dark fiber bill.

“The main reason we went with dark fiber is for control of our network in regard to speed, reliability and overall up-time,” said Jason Shawn, WFISD’s Network Operations Manager. “We saved an enormous amount of monthly money for the taxpayers.”

He and WFISD Chief Technology Officer Shad McGaha talked for several years about making the leap to dark fiber. They calculated WFISD’s projected student counts and growth projections for the next 10 years to determine how much bandwidth WFISD would need, then put the bid out to service providers to see what it would cost.

“We figured we could do it less expensively,” said McGaha of the dark fiber option. Better yet, if needs changed and the school district demanded even faster speeds for its network, a dark fiber network would enable WFISD to quickly adapt.

“We tried to future-proof ourselves,” said Shawn. “We have the fiber in the ground. To increase speeds, we can change the hardware on both ends to make it faster if we need to.”

Currently, WFISD supports about 28,000 devices – Chromebooks, desktop computers, laptops, phones, iPads, Macintosh computers, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as thermostats, air quality monitors and cameras. McGaha estimates the needed bandwidth at 1 GB of bandwidth per 1,000 students. “It’s extremely fast,” he said.

But in the end, users don’t care about dark fiber, but only about seamless performance, which is now top-notch, said Shawn. “You just want something that works.”

And, in schools, it needs to work every day, without exception.

“Our main goal is to make sure we’re not disrupting instruction. We want to have a reliable network that our users – our staff and students – can rely on,” said Shawn. “That’s what we’ve done with dark fiber. We’ve saved taxpayers money, but we’ve made it a reliable and robust network for our end users.”