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April 04, 2018

'Turtle Speed to Light Speed'

by Mike Mendenhall, News Editor

PCM fiber-optic internet to install one more extension

Monroe, IA — When PCM schools remodels the school district bus barn to add administrative offices later this year, it will also be closing the books on another long-term project.

Mediacom, Inc. will lay the last of a network of fiber-optic internet lines from the high school to the admin offices, completing a high-speed internet infrastructure upgrade PCM has been undertaking since 2016.

As work finished on new “Link” building between Prairie City Elementary and PCM Middle School this winter, district technology director Sean Balzer said contractors laid fiber-optic lines between those two schools, largely completing the multi-year internet infrastructure project.

When Balzer first took over as the district’s technology director five years ago, PCM High School was getting 50 megabytes per second (mbps) internet speeds and the Prairie City schools were getting less. In non-tech terms, that’s really slow internet for a school district’s needs.

Prairie City’s speeds were so low because the internet connection was broadcast via antenna from the high school in Monroe all the way to Prairie City. Similar to a radio signal, the farther broadcast internet travels, the weaker it is.

So the first step was to buy higher speeds from the district’s former internet provider the Iowa Communications Network, or ICN. That bumped the high school to 100 mbps, but Balzer said it didn’t do much for the Prairie City campus.

“That was literally to try to push more signal through the internet antenna we had. But the problem is our antenna were 10 miles apart. It did improve, but not much,” Balzer said. “The distance was degrading the signal so much it didn’t matter.”

The first proposal was for PCM to run their own fiber line from Monroe to Prairie City and contract out the construction. The price would have been nearly $400,000 — out of the district’s budget.

So in 2017, the PCM school board accepted Balzer’s proposal to partner with Mediacom to connect Prairie City and Monroe via its own private fiber pathway, tapping into a bigger fiber-optic line that runs between Newton and Des Moines.

The $16,500 internet infrastructure project done by Mediacom was discounted by 60 percent through the state government’s E-rate program — a financial incentive for Iowa schools to upgrade their technology.

With its monthly service payment and the E-rate discount, PCM will only spend $49,200 in the first five years of its high-speed internet program. This is $820 per month and includes the work Mediacom did to lay the fiber lines. After the work is paid off in five years, PCM’s bill will drop.

PCM now gets a consistent 450 mbps speed at all of its school buildings. Balzer said this has improved website load times and document upload and download speeds for students and teachers. Web-based curriculum, textbooks and lessons are also more responsive.

It also brings PCM’s internet capabilities on par with urban school districts. The old internet antennas have been removed during the district renovation project.

“Originally, I wanted the towers to stay and use as a 20 mbps backup through ICN. But with the antennas going down there’s no point. So we’ll be pulling ICN in the future to save money,” Balzer said.

Balzer said there is another plus to Mediacom. If the district needs a temporary boost in speed, he can order it and drop it back down at will.

“If we have a special event where we’re going to have a massive amount of people here, I can say ‘can you boost me to 600 mbps for the weekend?’ And they’ll do it,” Balzer said.