Richardson Independent School District Deploys Fiber Optic Networks

T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), October 1993 | Go to article overview

Richardson Independent School District Deploys Fiber Optic Networks


Public school systems in the U.S. are fast becoming early adopters of advanced data communications technology. The Richardson Independent School District (RISD) in Richardson, Texas, is a notable example.

Comprised of 49 primary and secondary schools spanning 65 locations across an interconnected wide area network, RISD has taken the first steps to convert aging copper cabling throughout much of the district to a fiber optic-based data communications infrastructure. Implementation is planned for the next three years. Initially, the district will be upgraded from AppleTalk to Ethernet.

During its conversion efforts over the past year, RISD discovered that many of the myths plaguing fiber optic networking--namely exorbitant cable and electronics costs and overly complex installation and termination--are unfounded.

* Copper Shortcomings

According to Troy Sprenger, Network Systems Manager for RISD, the decision to evaluate fiber-optic cabling was triggered by intermittent disruptions in data communications services to 11 school sites.

During a site survey of Lake Highlands High School, one of the district's largest high schools, Sprenger and his technical staff discovered that the entire network was wired with AppleTalk cabling rated below "pots" level, ie., below the lowest level for low-speed data transmission. This prompted a decision to recable the whole campus.

"We quickly determined that ThinNet Ethernet cabling wasn't an option given the layout of the campus," explains Sprenger. "We were confronted with daisy-chaining desktop systems with a cable run approaching 2,000 feet, which meant we'd have to resort to multiple repeaters. This design was simply too expensive." ThickNet backbone cabling wasn't viable either because the campus' buildings were constructed out of dense cement ceilings, ,floors and walls. A larger shortcoming of thin and thick copper cabling also surfaced: If a single point on a network segment's bus goes down, then all users on that bus are affected.

"The cost analysis for multi-port concentrators was based on pricing down to the port level.

Having ruled out ThinNet and ThickNet, RISD looked at a 10Base-T implementation requiring Level 3 unshielded, twisted-pair copper. (Twisted-pair copper cable is currently divided into five levels based on design and signal quality capabilities: Level 1 = voice; Level 2 = low-speed data [e.g., RS-232, 3270 connections]; Level 3 = 10Mbps Ethernet; Level 4 = 16 Mbps Token Ring; and Level 5 = high-speed data [100Mbps].)

"Given the fact that we were recabling the entire campus, we didn't want to be locked into a cabling strategy that was limited to 10Mbps data transmission," says Sprenger. "The way hardware and standards are leapflogging each other, we wanted to be sure that the chosen.cabling strategy could accommodate the inevitable bandwidth and transmission crunch that is sure to come. "The networking industry is less than ten years old. We've gone from 300-baud modem communications to 100Mbps FDDI in that time frame."

RISD ran pricing comparisons for Levels 4 and 5 copper as well as fiber optic cable. "Level 4 copper, which has no upgrade path, priced out about 10% less than fiber optic cabling," notes Sprenger. "And Level 5 copper was actually more expensive than fiber. When we looked at upgradability, troubleshooting and price factors, fiber optics became an excellent option."

* Pilot Testing

To convince RISD's management that fiber optic cabling was viable, a pilot installation was set up at a ten-node library site at Lake Highlands Junior High School, which had been experiencing equipment and user errors. The pilot answered in the positive all of management's concerns regarding the anticipated difficulties of installing and maintaining fiber.

"With the help of Anixter, one of our distributors, we were able to recable the entire library in two days," says Sprenger. …

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