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City, schools embark on fiber optic project

The city of Oak Harbor and the Oak Harbor School District may join forces to construct a state-of-the-art, fiber optic network to connect all city and school buildings in cyberspace.

Someday, the fiber optic backbone may even be linked to the mainland and shared with local businesses.

The joint project, estimated to cost as much as $500,000, is aimed at allowing faster exchange of information between schools or city departments; improved customer service due to increased availability of information; increased data processing reliability; and the full use of current software and videoconferencing.

“It will be like everyone’s in the same building,” said Bruce Roberts, director of the school district’s information services department. “It will be a lot faster.” The nine-employee department also contracts with the city for technical services

Oak Harbor City Council members voted last week to proceed with design, work out a preliminary agreement with the school district and set aside $250,000 in general government reserve funds. The school board gave their OK to move ahead last fall and set aside $350,000. The district is already in the design phase.

According to Roberts, the city and school district will save a lot of money — as much as $150,000 overall — by working together. The city has eight sites and the district has 12 sites that need to be connected.

City Administrator Thom Myers said the council approved $25,000 in funding last fall for designing the network, but it never happened. City officials were negotiating with Comcast, the local cable franchise, to have them assist with construction of a fiber optic network.

The problem, Myers said, was that Comcast went forward with their own design and installation of fiber without letting city officials know, effectively leaving them in the dust. Yet both Myers and Roberts, who’s on the cable negotiation committee, said they still hope to work out some sort of deal with Comcast someday — like possibly wiring into the cable company’s network, which runs off the island.

From an administrator’s point of view, Myers said the fiber optics network will be a good way to increase efficiency and flexibility within departments. Currently, people from different departments have to print out and hand deliver large files in order to share them with other departments or members of the public. People in different buildings don’t have access to software in other buildings. The system is too slow for teleconferencing. And the city’s expensive new financial software can’t be fully utilized because of bandwidth limitations.

Going to fiber optics, Myers said, will solve these problems for many years to come.

“It really puts us in a position to be ready for the future,” he said, “whatever that may hold.”

Roberts, like any good tech guy, is also very enthusiastic about the project. He recently visited the so-called “dungeon” at Oak Harbor Elementary, which serves as a hub for city and school district servers, routers and lots of other high-tech stuff. He pointed out where the orange-colored fiber optics lines comes into the room from the new North Whidbey Middle School, where the speed of the Internet and administrative functions are the envy of the district. It’s the only school that currently has fiber.

Roberts is quick to point out all the benefits he sees in updating the wide area network or “frame relay.” He said fiber optics have capacity which is “only limited by the equipment it’s connected to.” He explained that fiber optics lines carry light impulses with digital information — ones and zeros.

He also points out that the installation of fiber optics will likely save the city and school districts money over the long run. The school district is currently technologically ahead of the city because it leases several T-1 lines at about $50,000 a year. The city relies on smaller-capacity DSL lines, which he said are “so incredibly slow.”

The city is currently in a position, Roberts said, where it either needs to lease eight T-1 lines or build its own fiber optics network. If the two entities decide to construct their own network, he proposed that excess fiber be installed. In the future the city may be able to offer connections to local businesses.

“It’s a good time to upgrade,” he said.

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