Construction on the first phase of a three-year internet access project across the district is underway. By the project’s completion, more than 500 facilities will be connected through a fiber optic network.
More than 300 miles of fiber will be installed under city streets as part of the effort to connect schools to the network, which will offer a bandwidth of up to 20 gigabits per second, CPS spokesperson James Gherardi said.
As the first round of elementary schools connects to the network by January, their internet service will be able to reach speeds about 40 times faster than before. High schools’ maximum speeds will be about 20 times faster.
At current speeds of about 500 megabits per second, entire elementary schools operate on a network with bandwidths commonly available to individual households.
Students and staff likely experience “a fair bit of performance pain” on the old network, said Nick Feamster, a University of Chicago computer science professor and digital divide researcher.
The new network provides “a significant upgrade” that will make “a material difference” for classroom users, Feamster said.
The approximately $80 million network project is supported by $74 million in subsidies from the federal government’s E-Rate program — which provides discounts on internet and other telecommunications services for schools and libraries — and state matching funds.
CPS will spend $4.3 million on the project. The district will lease the fiber from Houston-based internet service provider Netsync, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.
Of the 81 schools scheduled to receive the improvements in the first round, 35 are on the South Side, including O’Keeffe, Black Magnet and Powell elementary schools in South Shore.
Other Southeast Side schools slated for improvements:
- Niños Heroes, Mireles and Coles elementary schools and EPIC Academy High School in South Chicago.
- George Washington High School in East Side.
- Marsh Elementary School in South Deering.
Improvements may not be completed at all 81 schools this year if there are unforeseen issues with construction, Gherardi said.
The federal funding is only to be used for improving the schools’ internet access, Gherardi said. But installing the fiber could allow for a future “community-based network” in neighborhoods surrounding the schools, he said.
“It’s exciting to see CPS invest in the infrastructure like this,” Feamster said. “I think there’s some opportunities for the infrastructure here to serve as a springboard for better connectivity throughout the community. This could be the start of that story — it’s certainly not going to be the end.”
The fiber itself is like a highway, creating the possibility for increased internet traffic, Feamster said. But if community members are to access the fiber’s capabilities, “on-ramps” connecting individual homes to the infrastructure must also be built.
Residents would also need “cars,” or internet service providers, to use the infrastructure. There’s also the question of whether the community networks would be taxpayer-funded or a “toll road” where individual users pay for service plans in their homes.
“Those are the kinds of decisions” officials must make as they consider how the new infrastructure can address disparities in internet access throughout Chicago, Feamster said.
The potential for faster internet in the communities surrounding the schools is a welcome development, said Dianne Hodges, lead organizer of the South Merrill Community Garden down the street from O’Keeffe.
Hodges uses the internet to work from home as a service member with UChicago’s Comprehensive Care program. Through her work, she also sees how older people need the internet to combat loneliness and receive social services, she said.
But improved access to their employment and modes of survival aren’t the only reasons residents would benefit from using the fiber infrastructure, she said.
“I like to watch movies,” Hodges said. “I need high speeds.”
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