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A university-area pedestrian watches for a moment as a worker runs a drill last week, boring a path for a portion of the 21-mile fiber network being built for Missoula County Public Schools. With completion of the project, MCPS will be the first school district in the state to own its own fiber network.

Missoula County Public Schools is adding to the city beneath Missoula.

One part of the $158 million in bonds passed by voters a year ago is, compared to the building projects, an invisible addition to the school district. It's a 21-mile fiber network currently being routed underneath the city.

But while it's not visible, the project will have an immediate and noticeable impact in classrooms.

All construction south of the Clark Fork River is expected to be done by Dec. 1. The trickier part of the project, north of the river toward Rattlesnake Elementary, is going to take longer.

The fiber project is a $3.2 million investment that the district says will save them $3 million over the next 20 years.

It will make MCPS the first school district in Montana to own its own fiber network.

Crews blowing fiber into the conduits have been working so fast that they were sent to Bozeman for a fiber project for a couple of days last week to give construction crews time to catch up, said MCPS network coordinator Maurice Austin.

The fiber network is an underground system connecting the district's buildings to each other and upping internet speeds, one key component of the 21st Century Model of Education initiative.

"I hike the L a lot ... and when I look down on Missoula, I see this network of roadways, different neighborhoods and areas where school buildings are," said Hatton Littman, director of technology and communication. "Every time I hike up there, I look out and for me, because we're working on this project, I'm constantly thinking about another network, the system of connections underground that connects our buildings together, and what a great investment it will be for our district."

***

It's the end result of a multi-year investigation that led MCPS technology staff to a realization: the local internet service they were paying for to connect their buildings "was not very competitively priced and the service wasn't very fast," Littman said.

There are two parts: a wide area network and the internet service.

The wide area network connects MCPS' 21 buildings to each other – "imagine little telephone lines connecting all the buildings so they can share data," Littman said. For years, MCPS contracted with Charter Spectrum and Blackfoot Communications to establish the WAN.

"That was the component that when we analyzed, we found out how slow our speeds were," Littman said. "We also learned that the market price for those services was not competitive in Montana, and not competitive on the national level.

"The increase in speed for data transmission between buildings will go from 100 (megabits per second) to 10 gig. That's a 100-fold increase in data transmission speeds on the wide area network."

The U.S. Department of Education and President Barack Obama's ConnectED Initiative recommend "speeds of no less than 100 megabits per second per 1,000 students and a target speed of 1 gigabit per second by 2018," according to a 2014 DOE report.

"We only had 25 mbps when I started here 10 years ago," Austin said. "You would start up your computer and it was a struggle for the network."

EducationSuperHighway and the Montana Educational Technologists Association recommend 100 kbps per student – a 2014 bandwidth goal that most Montana school districts are meeting. By 2018, that goal increases to 1 mbps per student. Most districts need upgrades to meet that goal.

"Missoula was woefully under those speeds," Littman said.

Currently, MCPS pays $287,000 a year for its WAN and internet service, about $200,000 of which is for the WAN.

"We looked at that and said, 'That's crazy, that's not competitive,'" she said. "But the cost for that service at market rates (is such that) we couldn't afford to actually buy the speeds we needed."

***

Once MCPS' bonds passed, the district called for bids last December to establish a new WAN.

They evaluated four options over three months: leasing lit fiber service, leasing dark fiber service, indefeasible rights of use, or self-provisioned fiber.

MCPS was already leasing lit fiber service. Leasing dark fiber service means the district would maintain the equipment to light the fiber. An IRU would mean the district uses a fixed capacity for a period of time.

Self-provisioned fiber is what they settled on, and is what's under way right now. A contractor comes in and builds a fiber network for the school district, which the district eventually owns outright.

MCPS projected the cost of each option over 20 years.

"We're saving the district $3 million over the next 20 years in the general fund that will be able to be allocated to other things," Littman said of self-provisioned fiber. "It's more than $3 million, actually. The reason we say we'll only end up saving the general fund $3 million in the end is because we do have some annual maintenance costs to incur to protect the fiber."

Leasing lit fiber for the speeds MCPS needs would have cost $1.5 million to $3.1 million for only a five-year contract. A dark fiber 10-year contract would have cost about $3 million.

They still need to contract with a local internet service for the "second part of the recipe." The district will start that bidding process soon, looking for speeds around 1 gbps.

"Users will definitely feel a quick improvement," she said.

Some already are.

In Sentinel High teacher Dan Lande's networking class, students conducted a speed test and found their network was pushing close to 1 gbps. He emailed MCPS' technology staff, shocked by the increased speed.

"We were able to renegotiate our agreement in the last nine months with one of our providers to increase speeds to 1 gbps," Littman said. "We had a signed contract with them three years ago, and the price we were paying for 200 mgps was closer to the market price of 1 gbps.

"It was the geek version of watching a room full of kids watch the touchdown-scoring goal of the Super Bowl. They were so excited about seeing the data transmission speeds we could accomplish."

***

While the fiber network is a $3.2 million project, the district has applied for a federal subsidy through the E-Rate program.

If approved, the district would receive a $1.8 million reimbursement. If E-Rate doesn't come through, the project will be paid for out of the bonds and the technology levy.

The original bid was for a 13-mile fiber network. After adjustments, it's up to 21 miles.

That's partly because the contractor had to work around Montana Department of Transportation rules, which say a non-public utility cannot run fiber optic lines parallel to state roads.

"On a street like Brooks, that can be really challenging," Littman said. "It would be convenient to run fiber underground along Brooks ... but if you're not considered a public utility, they don't allow it."

The Rattlesnake area has proven tricky, a chapter of the project that's expected to get under way this week or next.

"Missoula used to be a glacial lake bed, so up in the Rattlesnake in particular the ground underneath the topsoil is very rocky," she said. "The drill rigs are very powerful and bore underground, but when they hit rocks of a big enough size, it gets really slow going."

Crews may have to drill under people's driveways, or open up small trenches to lay the conduit.

Initially, homeowners have been concerned when they see construction equipment show up outside. There haven't been any complaints, though, with crews leaving little behind once they're done laying fiber.

The fiber network won't stretch to Mount Jumbo School, where Lowell Elementary is living temporarily this school year, and Seeley-Swan High School, 50 miles away in Seeley Lake.

"It's not economically feasible for the school district to invest in laying its own fiber to connect to that school," Littman said of Seeley-Swan. 

Instead, the district has a three-year contract with Blackfoot to provide internet to Seeley-Swan and Mount Jumbo.

So if you spot orange pieces of pipe sticking out of the ground at intersections, you're seeing MCPS' fiber project under construction. These are the conduits that hold the fiber.

"We're breaking ground with this project," Austin said.

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