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A family of four in Missoula can get Internet speeds of 60 megabits per second in their home. A 500-person Missoula County Public Schools building only has 100 mbps.

This week, MCPS trustees voted unanimously to approve a proposal to build a district-owned fiber network, which will create connections between each school.

Technology staff said Tuesday’s decision will nix the painfully slow download speeds in classrooms, improve streaming video, conference calls, and software and digital textbook downloads – and save the district $3 million in operational costs over 20 years.

The district's current service contract sunsets June 30, and a request for proposals went out in December. There were seven submissions from companies across the nation, and a district committee launched an intensive two-phase evaluation process.

Five years ago, the district received only two submissions, one of which had to be disqualified. This time around, the companies came from Idaho, Colorado, Missouri, Virginia and Missoula. The evaluation committee recommended Virginia-based Wide Open Networks, which will serve as the district's "wide area network" service provider.

"It's one thing to talk about building projects that involve construction and designing buildings that engage local tradespeople," said director of technology and communications Hatton Littman. "But when you talk about engaging in services that include high-tech broadband infrastructure, the reality is the competitive market for those services expands beyond just Missoula and Montana."

A public school district has to follow state procurement guidelines, which stipulate these contracts "must be awarded to the lowest responsible bidder without regard to residency." MCPS also had to follow federal E-Rate guidelines, which dictate the total cost of ownership and price have to be the highest-weighted factors.

"We would not have self-inflicted this process on ourselves. This was daunting," Littman said, laughing. "I think we all learned a lot, and we all feel incredibly much more benefited as human beings and as professionals as a result of it. But it was onerous, and we followed guidelines both from USAC (Universal Service Administrative Co.) and E-Rate, as well as support and technical assistance provided by EducationSuperHighway."

The U.S. Department of Education recommends that schools have a minimum speed of 100 mbps, but the goal is 1 gigabit per second per 1,000 students by 2018.

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MCPS upgraded each of its high schools to 1 gbps this school year and 300 mbps to its middle schools and four elementary schools. The remaining elementary schools operate on 100 mbps speeds. 

Using capital funds for this project takes pressure off MCPS' general and technology funds, which were doling out $176,000 per year for connections between buildings and another $96,000 annually for Internet service.

After the E-Rate subsidy, MCPS would pay about $1.5 million over 20 years for its fiber network.

"What we would pay in five years for a service provider is equal to what we would pay to build our own fiber network," Littman said. "And that includes annual maintenance costs and equipment put on either end of the strands of fiber."

This proposal leaves out Mount Jumbo School and Seeley-Swan High School due to their distance. The committee is still evaluating options for those schools, Littman said, and will come back to the board March 22 with recommendations.

MCPS couldn't wait for a proposed Missoula citywide fiber network, Littman said.

"The reason we went through this onerous process was because the Missoula fiber network is not an entity. It's not real. It doesn't exist right now," she said. "It would be a great idea if it did. But we had to meet our needs ... with a sunsetting contract at the end of the school year. We could not wait on some sort of idea out in the future."

Wide Open Networks' proposal was the most aggressive build plan, she said, as well as being mostly underground rather than aerial.

A negotiated contract will be up for board approval on March 22.

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Reporter for the Missoulian