All through the 1990s STEM~Net tackled the problem of providing school and teacher Internet connectivity head-on, with the aid of Industry Canada. It forged partnerships with existing communications companies and even took unprecedented measures of its own to make things happen that the industry could not.
It worked. Thanks to the efforts of many, including the support of Industry Canada’s Doug Hull and especially Frank Shapleigh, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador was able to claim bragging rights of being the first to have all its schools online. When you think about it that’s quite an achievement given the extreme rurality of the place.
None of it came easy. The overall solutions were a collection of best efforts by all involved. The schools in the larger centres were relatively easy to work with. I use that term with caution, knowing full well that the Internet Service Providers were in full build mode striving to deliver new services over infrastructure that was not originally intended for digital signals. Those coax lines were intended to carry analog cable TV; those copper phone lines were intended to carry voice by analog. Soon, though, cable and DSL modems would be sending digital signals through those conduits. Electronics everywhere had to be replaced; and THAT cost a lot of time and money. Schools were not wired for computer networking when they were built; no existing LAN infrastructure. Many of the schools were therefore actually wired up for networking by dedicated teams of volunteers who came in on evenings and weekends—all for free, of course. The work got done, and soon, through STEM~Net sponsored projects (with generous support on behalf of the providers) such as Stellar Schools, the larger, more urban schools were soon all online.
It was much harder in the ‘outports’ but they were not forgotten. STEM~Net’s directors, first Harvey Weir and then, (when Harvey moved to Post Secondary DE) Nancy Parsons, were both determined to connect the rural schools too. It got done, but it was much harder. Some schools had dial-up, some had various faster copper-line based solutions (e.g. DSL and Cable). Most had the hybrid satellites shown in the pictures. Fibre was to come much later—to this day not all sites are served that way, but progress continues to be made.
The satellite connections were very much a grassroots activity. Harvey Weir had succeeded in obtaining a large number of DirectPC systems from Ottawa. Frank Shapleigh led the process of installing them. Most were mounted on the roofs of schools. The parts were often assembled in the school by the students or other personnel at the school and then installed on the roofs by the school’s custodial staff, teachers, or community volunteers, all under Frank’s guidance. The fact is, there is hardly a school roof in this province that Frank has not walked on. :>)
The DirectPC systems were a hybrid. Here’s how it worked: a student would click a hyperlink in the computer lab and the request would go out to the school proxy server which would then upload it via dial-up to the Internet where the request would go to the server in question. The content requested would then NOT go back via dialup. It would, instead, be routed to the satellite uplink ground station just outside of Toronto where it would be beamed up to the satellite. The signal would then be beamed back to earth (at very high speed) where it would be received by the satellite dish on the school roof and then routed to the student’s computer via the school proxy server. It was much faster than dialup because on the Internet, at the time (and mostly still today) the majority of traffic is download. So the upload at dialup speed was tolerable. The downlink through the satellite was faster so, overall, the system was reasonably good.
There were a couple of hitches. First, the satellite bandwidth was shared with all users—and there were MANY—so after 11AM, when the rest of North America woke up, the system started to slow. On some days the system became little better than dial-up. Second, these satellite systems rely on geosynchronous satellites—ones that remain fixed in place above the same exact spot on earth. That’s so you can aim the dish right at the satellite and get the best signal strength. They revolve around the earth once every 24 hours. This means they have to be located (a) directly above the equator and (b) at an altitude of approximately 37,000 km. Here’s the problem: the communities in our province are mostly located between about 50o and 57o N latitude. This means that the ‘look angle’ to the satellites is pretty small. Simply put, the satellites appear to be barely above the horizon. Trees, nearby buildings and worst of all, hills, can block the view of the satellite. The further North you go the worse this gets—and the bigger the dish you may need to allow for a strong-enough signal. In many, many places, from the school, the satellite was actually out of sight and significant measures had to be taken so that the system would work. But it was made to work.
The video above shows the installation of the system in one of our sites, H. L. Strong Academy in Little Bay Islands. Viewed from the school, the satellite was behind a hill–and thus unreachable–so Frank, school board personnel and community volunteers cut a path up the hill, built a structure to support the dish and installed it there. The camera is a bit tricky; the hill is MUCH steeper than it appears. You pretty much have to crawl up and slide down! The end of the video shows the ferry coming, and it’s not hard to get an appreciation for the rurality of the place. Incidentally, it was not always that way. In earlier times Little Bay Islands was a well-populated hub of economic activity, serving as a service and processing centre for the Labrador fishery. Times change. A little later on in the series (part 7 or 8) you will see what had to be done when we upgraded the system four years later.
By around 1997, people were realizing that the Internet was starting to mature to the point where it could, perhaps, meet the high-speed/reliability specs imposed by distance education. Let’s be clear—whatever technology used to ‘deliver’ distance education is a serious piece of the school’s infrastructure. In short, it cannot withstand failure. What happens when the heating system fails? When the buses don’t run? When front-line personnel strike? The same thing happens in distance education when the communications systems go down. In essence school closes and students do not get their due.
Switch to the moment for a sec. What would happen if the cellphone system failed? Can you hear the screams? OK, switch back. That’s NOT how it was VIEWED in the nineties but that’s how it WAS. We had a solid, reliable and effective system for distance education in the province. Though electronic it was not Internet based. We did, collectively, see the value and the promise in the Internet but we also had enough sense to know that we had some ways to go before we had a solid, reliable working system that was just as effective.
The whole educational community wanted this to happen. At both the formal and the informal levels various levels of both the education and health care systems were cooperating and partnering to try and effect positive change.
Next: Enter the Vista project; a major source of new information that led to improvement.