Community Colleges | Feature

Broadband, High-Speed Fiber Networking Infrastructure: A Community College Vision

A Q&A with LACCD CIO Jorge Mata

More data-intensive computing, many-to-many collaborations, and high-bandwidth consuming new media are becoming signposts of the way we work, now and in the future, at every type of higher education institution. Greater connectedness for organizations and individuals alike makes the bold distinctions and segregation between types of institutions and students a thing of the past and offers more possibilities for community partnerships.

That's why Los Angeles Community College District is making plans for ConnectLACCD: a broadband fiber ring that will link each campus and create a district-wide high-speed network; provide district-wide broadband wireless coverage; facilitate resilient administrative systems and establish regional backup capabilities that can save hundreds of thousands of dollars on backup alone; and establish scalability that will truly meet LACCD's future networking needs.

Now that ConnectLACCD is in its final planning stages, CT spoke with LACCD CIO Jorge Mata (photo above) for his comments about the significance of this high-speed, broadband fiber initiative.

Mary Grush: Los Angeles Community College District is working on a plan to deploy a new next-generation high-speed fiber network. Could you give me an idea of the scope of this project, and where you stand now in your planning?

Jorge Mata: This project has gone through multiple layers of review and authorization. It is currently pending final review for release. The project is designed to interconnect 12 sites in greater Los Angeles: There are 9 colleges, an educational services center that serves as our district office, and two large satellites. Collectively we are spread over about 882 square miles, and we're serving about a quarter million students and about 10,000 employees. The project is to interconnect all of these sites with fiber optic cable that will be owned by LACCD, to provide bandwidth for all of our current and future needs.

Grush: What are some of the drivers for this project?

Mata: I think the biggest driver is the bandwidth needs of our classrooms. That is tied to our core mission and our core competency. There is an insatiable appetite for higher definition, higher quality media in these classrooms. Much of our faculty is leveraging video in our instructional programs, sometimes to reinforce course content delivered in other forms, sometimes as the original course content, and sometimes to facilitate interaction between our students, or between our faculty and students.

Also there is a greater drive for efficiency throughout LACCD, and this results in more automation, and more digital systems replacing manual or paper systems--and all that data and the ability to protect it is top-of-mind for our IT organization. So, we need the ability to keep data secure, and to be able to do so very quickly.

Another big driver for us was the cost of providing connectivity: It used to be completely subsidized by the state, but our state has started eliminating these subsidies--so the colleges are paying an increasingly larger proportion of the connectivity costs. Given the state of the economy and the budget in California, it is very likely that trend will continue. It's what I call a digital tsunami. We have more need and more value being created by the availability of digital technology, but the means to address those needs are diminishing. So, we're looking for a way to make a capital investment in a network infrastructure that can actually reduce our long-term operational costs.

Grush: Would you be running your own fiber, for the most part?

Mata: Yes, but to be precise, that's a bit of a misnomer. We would own it. We understand that we are not a fiber company. We would do an RFP, and someone who is a specialist in fiber optics would actually deploy the network. Then it would be our property, and we would maintain ownership.

Grush: Could you characterize how the overall growth trends in data usage affect your planning for network infrastructure?

Mata: Let me give you some perspective. If you look at the amount of data a person depended on in the mid-eighties, it's probably about one "floppy" worth of data--a little less than a megabyte. We've been in conversations with our faculty over time, and found that in the nineties that jumped to about 10 floppies-worth of data. By the year 2000, it was hundreds, and currently we're in the thousands of megabytes. Within five or six years, this may grow to "billions of floppies-worth" of data! So the amount of dependency on data, and the amount of data that organizations need to be prepared to manage is growing exponentially.

Having 12 locations, each trying to deal with all that data is just not going to be effective. So, one of the ways we are trying to address this problem in the future, with ConnectLACCD, is by sharing more network infrastructure and providing a higher level of connectedness among the sites. Because otherwise, what will increasingly be considered a low level of connectivity between us could create insurmountable problems that may require us to invest in very complex solutions--desperate fixes that would not be much more than stop-gap measures to deal with this massive growth.

Grush: Are you looking into community partnerships for the future with ConnectLACCD--maybe having other institutions and organizations riding along on your fiber?

Mata: Well, we certainly have "community" in our name. All of our colleges are community colleges. And we operate with that in mind. The new fiber network will be another resource for our colleges and for the district as a whole. And we always engage in partnerships. Sometimes it's by allowing companies to pay to use our excess capacity; sometimes it's for community groups to come and collaborate with us on mutually beneficial projects like workforce development or economic development, or community services or education. We see ConnectLACCD as another opportunity to continue to expand these types of relationships.

Grush: I'm wondering about the economics of sustaining your own networking strategies--especially why you think it makes sense to own your own fiber network.

Mata: With or without ConnectLACCD, we would still reach out to providers for Internet capacity, and we would still maintain our own internal network. So, even with this new fiber network, there would be no significant changes to those particular strategies. But at the same time, with ConnectLACCD, we would be offsetting costs greatly.

For example, from a high level, in the current network we have 20 access points to the Internet. By leveraging the new fiber network we can probably reduce that down to six, without compromising resilience or backup capability. And we'd probably triple the bandwidth capability. This new fiber network would not burden us; it would actually enable us to reduce a lot of our infrastructure and just replace it with the right amount of technology at the right capacity, and then scale as needed.

Grush: It seems like we used to talk about high-bandwidth networks and community networking initiatives more often in an R1 setting. Why is running your own high-speed fiber network important in a community college setting?

Mata: As a community college, we have so many touch points and a very broad mission. Success in our mission is only limited by the resources that are available to us, and connectivity through a high-bandwidth, cutting-edge network infrastructure is going to be one of the best resources for realizing our goals.

Our first goal as a teaching and learning institution is success of the individual, but that ultimately becomes the success of the community. Because of that we are vocational; we are also a place for achieving transfer to a 4-year university; we are about skills; and we are about research. And at the same time we are a natural partner for industry, and we have an important relationship with K-12. So we are in a distinctive place.

Beyond all that, we have a role in creating opportunities for health care, and for law enforcement, for entertainment; and much more… We have a breadth of relationships within the community. We are the right place for starting conversations among divergent groups and can serve as a focal point for many different entities. And, importantly, we have scale--we reach the masses.

Around us, we have a new digital economy. If people are not given equal access into that economy, they will be shut out of certain sectors. But we're not about that: We are about open access, embracing the entire community. So our new high-speed fiber network aligns well with the institution's strategic vision.

Grush: It sounds like with such a broad mission, reaching such a broad range of people in the community, you need a "broadband" high-speed fiber network!

Mata: Exactly.

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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