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Thursday, May 29, 2014


Here's another estimate on the cost of upgrading schools' network infrastructures to give every student Wi-Fi access.  You may recall I estimated $5.5 billion.  Then Funds for Learning estimated $10.8 billion.  Now CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) and Education SuperHighway (ESH) have estimated $3.2 billion.  The differences are explained by the methodology.  My estimate was just extrapolated from a single data point.  Funds for Learning created a per-student average based on what schools had been requested, and applied that to all schools.  CoSN/ESH created a per-classroom basket of goods to calculate a per-school cost, and added district-level gear.  It then multiplied those costs by the number of schools and districts in the U.S., and came up with $2.9 billion.  And then added $300 million for libraries based on...nothing.

Who's right?  Nobody.  Obviously, my estimate is unreliable, since every school is different, and I used only one district with 2 schools.  FFL's estimate is bound to be too high, since it's based on what high-discount schools spend, and we know they overspend because 90% is too close to free.

CoSN/ESH's estimate suffers from being based on a theoretical configuration and average prices.  The quantities are reasonable, but I can't say they're right. I find the prices to be very optimistic.  $520 for an access point, installation included?  I'm seeing hardware prices around $1,000 for a manageable 802.11ac access point.  And what switch offers 6 gigabit PoE ports for $73 (OK, you don't need PoE on all ports, but you sure do for those access points)?  $12/port installed?  For a managed gigabit PoE switch, I'm seeing closer to $20/port for the hardware only.

CoSN/ESH also tried to estimate what percentage of schools actually need the upgrade.  That's a good idea, but I don't like their estimates for two reasons.  First, I think their view of current infrastructure is too optimistic.  For instance, they say that 43% of school LANs are ready for 1:1.  That's based on a CoSN survey of 472 tech directors.  Are those 472 representative of the nation?  I'd argue that they're likely to be more forward-looking since they are CoSN members, and proud of their networks since they volunteered to answer the survey.  Still, it's probably the best data out there.  But what is the actual data?  The question was, "How confident are you that the typical school's wireless network would have the capacity to handle a 1:1 deployment this fall?"  Only 15.2% were "very confident";  26.6% were "somewhat confident."  So what the data actually says is that 41.8% of tech directors surveyed are at least somewhat confident that most of their schools are ready for 1:1. It does not say that 43% of school networks are ready for 1:1.  It gets worse: in CoSN's report, we learn "no district reports full access in more than 71% of its schools."  And that's any wireless access, not enough capacity to handle 30 devices per room.  So 0% of the districts surveyed are completely ready for a 1:1 initiative.  I think all their estimates are overoptimistic.

But the bigger problem is that they are assuming that schools which have adequate infrastructure installed will not make upgrades.  If you offer someone an 80% discount, the meaning of "necessary" changes.
  • If I have to pay full price, I can get by with my current 802.11n-AP-in-every-third-room network.  But if I can get an 802.11ac AP in every room at 80% off, then that's what I'll do.
  • Is it necessary to upgrade that 5-year-old switch to a new managed PoE switch at a cost of $1,200?  Maybe not; we'll have to run an extension cord to the access points and suffer with 100 Mbps ports.  If the new switch cost $240?  Oh, yes.  
  • CoSN/ESH say 80% of schools have 6 drops/classroom.  Maybe.  Do they have 6 Cat6 drops ideally placed for future needs?  No, we installed Cat5 (which can handle gigabit on a good day), and hadn't anticipated the need for drops for an access point in every classroom, not to mention one for the smartboard and one for the projector.  I can't afford the $200 for a cable run to replace that 40' patch cable snaking up the wall and across the ceiling to the projector, but if I could get it for $40, then yes.
  • Late 2015, we'll see Wave 2 (MU MIMO) 802.11ac APs.  Time to replace all the APs.  And the upcoming 802.11ad (WiGig) sounds perfect for 1:1.  Each WiGig AP will deliver multiple gigs of data, so we need Cat6 cabling and 10 Gig PoE switches. Time to replace everything!  1-in-5 Rule?  Guess I'd better upgrade to Cat6 and 10 Gig PoE everywhere now, so that I'll be ready for WiGig.
If Priority Two funding becomes available to 70% applicants, look for a tsunami of forklift upgrades.  Even for 40% applicants, the demand will spike.

So I find the $3.2 billion figure to be a significant underestimation.  I'm liking my $5.5 billion guess more and more.

My final criticism: the report says that we'll be able to spread the $3.2 billion across 4 years.  Really, who's going to wait 4 years?  I suppose there are some schools who are upgrading this year who won't want to upgrade for 4 years.  But I don't think we can count on a quarter of applicants waiting 4 years.  Wireless access points get better every year, and they're easy to replace.

My crystal ball says requests for Wi-Fi gear will be: $4.2 billion in FY 2015-2016, $2.3 billion in FY 2015-2016, and $1.8 billion every year after that.  If maintenance is eligible, be ready for $500 million per year.

When exactly will the Chairman be convinced that $2.4 billion per year is not enough, even if he plays some game with the accounting to give the fund a one-time $2 billion goose?

1 comment:

  1. Not to be left out, Cisco has sent an estimate to the FCC:
    The bottom line:
    Equipment: $11.6 billion
    Installation: $1.56 billion
    Maintenance: $460 million