Why Hasn't This Happened Yet?

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If you have kids at home, you know the frustration of having your progeny sucking up your broadband data and finding yourself battling to open even basic email pretty much any time after they’ve landed home from school.

Imagine then what it must be like getting 300 or 800 or 1200 of them online at the same time at school every day. Sound like a problem? Well, it is, and it’s a big one.

Governments at state and federal level have jumped on board the digital revolution, introducing digital curriculums and this month’s state budget included an $84.3 million allocation to upgrade digital technology in classrooms across the state. This is all fantastic, and seeing ten-year-olds not only getting the basics of coding but being able to do 3D digital design and cloud-based presentations that are equal to many of those put out at today’s corporate level is a little mind-bending. But it also makes you wonder what are they going to be capable of when they’re fourteen.

So, the problem is clear, our schools are struggling to get reliable internet access for our increasingly tech-savvy and data-sucking teens. The answer, at least here in the G21 region, is also clear.

A local project to link up all - yes, all - of the region’s secondary schools to the university-developed and phenomenally powerful AARnet (Australia’s Academic and Research Network) has been developed and requires just $4.7 million to connect all of these schools to the network across the entire region.

G21 CEO Elaine Carbines highlighted that the program wasn’t funded in her response to the recent state budget, and we need so many more voices added to hers to make absolutely sure that this project happens. To be fair, our understanding is that the project has bipartisan support from state and federal local members, but is caught up in what can feel like the weighty bureaucracy of such things; but that is no excuse. It makes sense, in education sector terms it’s incredibly affordable and it just has to be done.

Leading the Geelong Secondary Schools and Community Digital Learning Hub project is John Mullins from North Geelong Secondary College. He explained that the project would connect all schools to AARnet, so that all secondary students in the region can experience what students at his school already know to be a game changer – ultra high speed reliable internet. We are talking from 1 Gbps (gigabit per second) to 18 Gbps - equivalent to university research network capacity - available for all of our secondary students, regardless of which school they attend.

This project makes so much sense that all of the partnering schools signed up in just one week, and that $4.7 million figure would also connect the region’s libraries to the network as well, with currently only the new Geelong Library and Heritage Centre having AARnet connection.

But wait, there’s more! The project would also include access to the Eduroam worldwide education Wi-Fi network, providing partner schools with access to global education networks and would mean that students could join classes at other schools, or even universities, without having to physically leave their school. Locally, the network would connect classrooms across the region to CSIRO and Barwon Health research institutions, 36 universities across Australia including Deakin University and Melbourne University, the Gordon – including the new technology school - the National Museum of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia.

“It’s not just about internet access,” John said, “It’s about a whole learning platform.

“This would also allow local schools to export education to other schools connected to the network, including overseas schools. That means that local schools could easily become exporters and importers of education.”

Admittedly, at first glance, and perhaps a lesson in the importance of choosing a catchy and memorable name (wrote editor of ubiquitously named Geelong Business News) you could be forgiven for not getting excited about the Geelong Secondary Schools and Community Digital Learning Hub. But beyond the wordy name, the project itself is something we should be getting behind.

It makes sense, in education sector terms it’s incredibly affordable and it just has to be done.

AARnet was developed as part of a collaboration between CSIRO and a number of Australian Universities to provide ultra high speed broadband to research facilities to allow them to work at the cutting edge of technology. The network was a stellar success and has been split off as a not-for-profit proprietary limited company, AARnet pty ltd, providing member-based internet services and is not available commercially or privately.

Under the proposed project, AARnet would run fibre to almost all schools that do not already have fibre going past them, and provide microwave link to those too far away to feasibly run fibre to, and they’re not going for the easy option either. For example, under the original plan, Surf Coast Secondary College to the south and Bellarine Secondary College and St Ignatius to the east would have been connected by microwave link. AARnet have since proposed to run fibre to these schools. For even further outlying schools, part of the $4.7 million connection budget would pay for what would otherwise be unaffordable microwave links. It sounds a little like what the NBN was supposed to do, only so much better and without having to go through retail service providers.

At the moment, government schools in Victoria are provided with 70 Mbps (megabit per second) paid for under the education budget. Going back to our original point around the amount of data sucked by teens, it’s easy to see why most schools have had a secondary connection installed at their own cost, and even then it’s nowhere near enough.

The AARnet proposal would provide truly future-proof bandwidth speeds at a similar price to what most schools are paying for their secondary connections now.

“Schools are just hanging in there,” John said. “They can’t survive on their current systems. AARnet are telling us that we could have 16 sites [schools and libraries] connected within three months and would extend quickly to have the entire project rolled out in two years.”

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