Upgrading the internet in Chicago schools means investing tens of millions

CHICAGO – An $84 million plan to boost internet speeds at Chicago Public Schools has stalled again, officials say, because of red tape in securing construction permits from the city.

For several months, crews have been ripping up streets to build a new high-speed fiber network. Around 80 schools were supposed to be connected by Nov. 1 as part of the project’s first phase, but that goal has been pushed to the first quarter of 2022.

The latest setback may mean more construction headaches for residents and more internet woes for students, who returned to school buildings for full-time, in-person learning in August and are due back from the winter break Monday.

Teacher Hannah Chorley communicates with her students by way of remote learning during the first day of school at Chicago’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academy of Social Justice in September 2020.

“We’re running over 300 miles of fiber throughout the city, originally slated as a three-year project,” Richard Burnson, CPS director of network services, told the Tribune. “We’re running a bit behind schedule, but continuing to push forward and have it wrapped up by 2023.”

The new network is slated to reach about 570 Chicago schools and administrative buildings. Each school would connect to two of 11 hubs spaced across the city. If there’s a problem with one of the connections, officials say high-speed internet would still be available.

Schools would have access to download speeds of 20 gigabits per second, Burnson said. When the project began, he said, elementary schools received 250 megabits of bandwidth. Now they’re at 500 megabits thanks to upgrades completed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most high schools each have access to one gigabit, though Burnson said CPS is “completing an effort to upgrade the high schools to two gigs, and that’s expected to wrap up by the end of (2021).”

The nation’s third-largest school district, CPS has 421 elementary schools and 91 high schools. Burnson said CPS experienced “few issues” last spring with connectivity because the district welcomed students back to campuses in waves after months of remote learning. But most of CPS’s 330,000 students have attended classes in person this fall, and technology tools such as Google Meet video sessions can tax a system.

“We’re really excited about future-proofing our network with this new project,” CPS Deputy Chief of Information and Technology Services Ed Wagner said. “We’ve seen, historically, schools have consumed more and more bandwidth each and every year that they’re in operation because of use of online tools for education. Skyline — as an example, our new digital curriculum — we do a lot of assessments online.”

CPS explored its options for a network redesign in 2018. At the time, AT&T was providing service, with network facilities located in Elk Grove Village; at the downtown Thompson Center, a site the state of Illinois plans to sell; and at CPS headquarters in the Loop.

The district estimated then it spent $19.6 million in circuit costs, fees and services, with $14.9 million funded by the federal E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries obtain affordable internet access.

“We’ve had some service challenges with AT&T,” Wagner said. “What we felt was, this (network project) was a better way of doing it to decrease our cost overall and allow for better resiliency and performance.”

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The Chicago Board of Education approved an agreement with Houston-based Netsync Network Solutions in 2019. The five-year deal, with two options to renew for five years each, is not to exceed $83.8 million. E-Rate is expected to cover about $70.4 million. The rest of the tab will be paid for with government grants and by the board, which is on the hook for no more than $9.8 million, according to the contract.

Burnson said the project price tag has not changed, despite the delays. A Netsync representative declined to comment to the Tribune and referred questions to CPS.

The first shovel broke ground in November 2020 — more than a year after the board approved the Netsync agreement and months after the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Burnson said the district focused its efforts on transitioning to remote learning and ensuring students had devices to connect to the internet at home.

He said crews are now concentrating on building the core network infrastructure. CPS says the first connections will be its data centers in Elk Grove Village and at its headquarters, along with 63 elementary sites and 18 high schools. A few of these schools share a campus.

Burnson said up to 240 facilities are targeted for the second phase.

“The first step for us to build the network is there’s a series of core rings that need to be established. There’s a north, central and south ring connecting all of the 11 hub locations. So those 11 hub locations had to be part of phase one in order to build out that foundation for the network,” he said. “Selecting the other 70 sites that would be connected was based on our focus on building out on the South and West sides.”

The hubs are located on the North Side at Garvy Elementary School, William C. Goudy Technology Academy and Theodore Roosevelt High School; on the West Side at Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School and John Spry Community School; in the South Loop at Jones College Prep; and on the South Side at Morgan Park High School, George Washington High School, Richardson Middle School, Wendell Phillips Academy High School and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Paideia Academy.

Burnson said one of the greatest challenges has been securing construction permits. Requests that cover more than a million feet of fiber have been submitted, he said, with about a half-million feet approved.

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There are more than two dozen members of the city Office of Underground Coordination, including Peoples Gas, ComEd and AT&T, that review proposals to determine if excavation work will affect their infrastructure.

“If there is any change that’s required by one of those organizations, you have to start the process over, so that way everyone is signed off on that final process,” Burnson said. “We’ve been working with (the Chicago Department of Transportation) and other city agencies, and they’ve been very supportive, but it’s still a very involved process to get the permits for the amount of work that we’re doing.”

There have been some construction and street parking woes as well. Crews drill horizontally under the surface of the street to install pipework the fiber runs through. Burnson said some complaints have been lodged about the temporary patching that’s put in place while the work is being completed.

“There have been some quality issues that we’ve addressed with the aldermen’s office, as well as the subcontractors that are doing the actual construction work,” he said. “We’re definitely working to make sure that any impact to citizens in the city are minimized as much as possible.”