Chicago Public Schools & Netsync Reimagine Digital Learning

A Digital Challenge Leads to a Once in a Lifetime Opportunity

Chicago’s expansive public school system was committed to maintaining its leadership position among America’s educational institutions. As the third largest public school system in the United States, it set its sights to proactively stay ahead of the technology curve while educating more students using more online and advanced tools.   

To achieve this, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) knew providing fast, reliable Internet service to its students was a key pillar of this strategy. With more than 350,000 students in K12 throughout 527 schools, the Chicago Public School (CPS) system sought a long-term solution. With only about 250 megabytes of Internet service serving each school, the Internet service was not providing the service CPS needed for its students. The Internet capacity sometimes labored to support students in just one classroom, never mind an entire school trying to access Cloud programs and applications.  

The opportunity to break this trajectory came through the ability to access E-Rate funding, the federal government’s Schools and Libraries Program under the Federal Communications Commission. The State of Illinois also recognized this opportunity and pledged money to build a robust Internet system that would serve Chicago Public Schools for decades. The initiative qualified as a Category One Project to help local school jurisdictions build fiber networks to all their schools. The opportunity to access the money was a once-in-a-generation opportunity, so CPS pounced.

They issued an RFP asking for tenders to supply it with WAN bandwidth and Internet service. CPS received several submissions, including one from its incumbent provider – a traditional DSL service provider who had been providing Internet service.

The project would be complex. Chicago’s public schools, like other schools in large metropolitan centers, are a mixture of older structures that were built in another era to larger, more modern campuses. Some schools served a relatively large area while some schools were only blocks apart. In addition, some areas served by the CPS were in lightly populated suburban areas while other schools were in densely populated heavily travelled areas that have an older infrastructure.

This project could end up being one of the most transformational initiatives that has ever touched these schools and the City of Chicago”

Dave Irek – Netsync’s Global Practice Manager

The project would be complex. Chicago’s public schools, like other schools in large metropolitan centers, are a mixture of older structures that were built in another era to larger, more modern campuses. Some schools served a relatively large area while some schools were only blocks apart. In addition, some areas served by the CPS were in lightly populated suburban areas while other schools were in densely populated heavily travelled areas that have an older infrastructure.

“This project could end up being one of the most transformational initiatives that has ever touched these schools and the City of Chicago,” said Dave Irek, Netsync’s Global Practice Manager who led the pursuit. “This fiber network has the potential to help more people than any other technology infrastructure project in the city.”

Lighting Up Hundreds of Schools at Reduced Cost

After an exhaustive and thorough review process, CPS announced in July 2019 that it awarded Netsync the 15-year contract. The agreement includes a Wide Area Network redesign and support services linking all schools with 350 route miles of fiber providing Internet speeds 200x faster than their current service with 20 gigabytes streaming into every school.

Netsync offered a superior technical solution that included components from longtime partner, Cisco along with local contractors who will be providing new jobs locally.

Netsync offered a superior technical solution that included components from longtime partner, Cisco along with local contractors who will be providing new jobs locally. This network will be a dedicated infrastructure foundation built specifically for CPS, with the ability to scale with predictable costs for the next 30 years while reducing costs by approximately 45%.

At the core of the WAN, more than 500 locations will be connected via a fiber optic network. The project will consist of an initial three-year phased build out of hundreds of miles of underground conduit pipe and 2,000 underground vaults housing a 432count fiber optic cable. This fiber optic network will carry the school’s Intranet and Internet access. It will provide for increased video capabilities for classes and meetings, quality voice and video, as well as faster downloading and uploading speeds. The faster speed also allows for other educational options, including virtual reality or other applications that could require 100’s of gigabytes.

During the first year, Netsync will be connecting about 81 facilities beginning in the city’s south and western portions. The second year of construction will connect an additional 250 facilities with the balance being connected in the final year of the construction phase.      

The WAN fiber optic network design will use an IP/DWDM transport solution. The Cisco Network Convergence System (NCS), Cisco Nexus and Cisco Catalyst are all used to provide a best of breed solution for this network. The network is based on a core DWDM ring design that collects all the 500-plus location and transport traffic via 200Gigabyte channels back to separate data centers. The core DWDM is NCS2k and provides more than 8Terabits of capacity. Each of the hub sites on the ring utilize an NCS5k for the aggregation of the remote sites and transportation of the L2 and L3 traffic via IP over DWDM. 

Each of the remote sites have Catalyst Compact Switch’s to provide a WAN demark with two 10Gigabyte Ethernet handoffs to the site’s LAN network. At the data centers, both the NCS2k and NCS5k are used for the aggregation and handoff of services via the Nexus 9k. To optimize the design, 10G, 100G and 200G connections are utilized throughout the network. 

Netsync has deep expertise supporting the technical needs of the country’s schools. It supports the seventh largest school district in the country in Houston, and its 214,000 students as well as the K-12 students in Texas’s Region 11 Education Service Center. Region 11 located in and west of the Dallas-Ft. Worth area covers more than 6,000 sq. miles and serves more than 575,000 students in 77 school districts.

Chicago Public Schools found a technology partner they could rely on to deliver on their mission: “To provide a high-quality public education for every child, in every neighborhood, that prepares each for success in college, career, and civic life.”

This project is not only an investment in our educational infrastructure, its an investment in our students

A Fiber Internet Network Connecting the Chicago Public Schools

The project will create an open and affordable broadband market and eliminate pervasive broadband inequality that has existed in the CPS while increasing the educational goals for thousands of students. 

Because Netsync’s priority is to serve CPS, and because this network is being built specifically with the public sector in mind, the fiber infrastructure can be easily augmented to support additional city services. There are countless ways this infrastructure could benefit the greater Chicago community, beginning with providing an open and affordable broadband solution to all the citizens of Chicago, including eliminating the gap of digital services in underserved areas of the city.

The new fiber network could easily support the city’s INVEST South/West Initiative, a neighborhood investment initiative designed to support revitalization of key corridors in the city marshaling the resources of multiple city departments, community partners, and corporate partners to revitalize the core of 10 underinvested neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides. The network could increase Internet and bandwidth capabilities to city departments and agencies, including libraries and parks. It could also be used to enhance public safety by connecting surveillance cameras and sensors.

The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 demonstrated the importance of accessible, affordable high-speed Internet to provide reliable and stable service, not only for educational institutions but for government agencies and commercial enterprises. The need to be connected is beyond a privilege today, it is a prerequisite to learn and to compete – beginning with an Internet-enabled education.