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Pittsburgh's I-Nets

A fiber-optic institutional network to be built to "wire" the city

Sunday, March 05, 2000

By Eleanor Chute, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Years before the word "Internet" was added to Webster's Dictionary, there was a dream of an electronic network connecting institutions throughout Pittsburgh.

The city's first cable TV contract in 1980 called for Warner Cable to build 90 miles of a "third wire" to be available to institutions. The wire was built but never used.

Now there are new possibilities to create electronic institutional networks, called I-Nets, using the latest technology: high-speed fiber optics.

This time, the concept won't lie dormant.

At least three institutional networks -- one for city offices, police stations and some other city sites; another for city schools; and a third for city libraries and museums -- will be built. Ten-year contracts already have been signed with AT&T, the city's cable TV provider.

In addition, community groups are working to set up a community I-Net, perhaps tapping into the school and library and museum networks.

The school and library networks are expected to be connected to each other. Ultimately, students may be able to connect directly to school resources at the library or a community center and vice versa.

And the Electronic Information Network, hosted by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, is planning to expand the I-Net concept. It is looking into merging school and library resources in 10 districts, including Elizabeth Forward, Fox Chapel Area, Quaker Valley and Sto-Rox.

Rick Flanagan, youth development director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. and an organizer of the Pittsburgh I-Net Working Group, called the group efforts a "national model" of "two major institutions, a library and museum system and a school district that, to their credit, are partnering with a whole variety of health care, education and social service organizations."

On Thursday, the Pittsburgh I-Net Working Group, which has been working to unite schools, libraries, museums and community groups, will demonstrate the network's capabilities to the public at 6 p.m. in the Architecture Hall of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

The building already has an internal, high-speed fiber network, so some of the possibilities can be demonstrated, including a virtual field trip and watching a school district jazz ensemble that's performing in another location.

Critical to the I-Net is the high-speed fiber being installed throughout the city by AT&T.

It provides what is called high bandwidth, necessary for uses that require speed and space, such as digital video and teleconferencing.

Think of high bandwidth as a multilane highway moving lots of traffic quickly and efficiently. Consider slower technology used to access the Internet as using a winding and narrow country lane.

This is more than just a quick road to the Internet. It also opens up a variety of network possibilities, such as video conferencing, distance learning and permitting students to access school resources when they're at the library or community center.

"This bandwidth allows us to do so much more instructionally," said John Barry, city school district director of technology and a leader in the Pittsburgh I-Net Working Group.

"The greatest thing about the I-Net is it brings together schools, libraries, community groups, foundations to really focus on helping the communities and the kids with services, with instruction, with information."

The Heinz Endowments have awarded $500,000 as a challenge grant to help to develop the I-Net, including $400,000 for efforts in the city and $100,000 for efforts outside the city. It also has made other efforts, including paying for the prototype of a digital video library that could be used on a fiber network.

"We have this whole new economy being based on the Internet," said Gerry Balbier of the Heinz Endowments and a leader in the Pittsburgh I-Net Working Group. "What we don't want to do is repeat some of the mistakes where we leave whole groups of our society behind because of the lack of capacity and the lack of opportunity."

In the first year or two of I-Net, said Elbert Yaworski, director of the Electronic Information Network and a leader in the Pittsburgh I-Net Working Group, "We want to make sure the schools and libraries are integrated. That's not an easy thing to do."

The effort will be extended to community groups that have an educational outreach. For example, health care uses, such as neighborhood clinics that need access to remote health care, could be developed.

Some of the earliest uses of the I-Net may come in the West End, where AT&T is installing fiber first.

The city school district is applying for a $500,000 state Technology Literacy Challenge Grant, said Rick Wertheimer, instructional technology coordinator in the city schools and active in the Pittsburgh I-Net Working Group. It would include piloting uses in the eight West End schools and two Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh branches. It also would experiment with video and distance learning. And it could involve collaboration with a community group that serves children after school.

The I-Net will take money. No one knows exactly how much. In addition to the costs of building fiber to the buildings and paying for services, there are issues of space for public access, computers that can handle the technology and wiring and electronics within buildings.

Both the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which made an application on behalf of the Electronic Information Network, and the Pittsburgh Public Schools have applied for e-rate money, a national discount program for Internet, internal connections and other telecommunications services for schools and libraries.

If the discount is awarded, it will pay for 76 percent of the district's AT&T bill for the fiber network and 61 percent of the libraries' cost for a year.

Yaworski said the cost of the network wasn't much more than the library pays now for current technology, considering the gain in speed. AT&T is charging the schools and the Carnegie $485 a month per site, compared with $400 per site that the Carnegie pays now for slower service.

Other grants also are being sought.

For the executive committee of the Pittsburgh I-Net Working Group, Bob Carlitz is writing a proposal seeking $375,000 from the federal Technology Opportunities Program, including help for connecting community groups. He is a leader in the group and executive director of Information Renaissance, a nonprofit aimed at developing community and education networks.

The possibility of an I-Net arose during contract negotiations with AT&T over renewing its cable TV franchise with the city.

In the fall of 1998, Carl Redwood Jr., program director of the Kingsley Association and a member of the city Cable Communications Advisory Committee, believed an I-Net could be developed as a communications network for communities. He won support from the committee for it to be included in the cable contract.

"I had been working with a number of neighborhood groups that developed computer labs that needed to be hooked together for the Internet," said Redwood.

The Pittsburgh I-Net Working Group -- which came to include the city school district, libraries and community groups -- began to organize around the issue of creating a network. Thirty to 40 community groups have been actively involved, with more than 100 participating from time to time, said Flanagan.

As city negotiations with AT&T were concluding last year, some supporters of an I-Net were disappointed that the contract didn't provide more financial help.

But the supporters won some items in the contract. The city agreed to waive the costly requirement that wires be placed underground for the groups and agreed to waive the 5 percent franchise fee for the groups.

The contract also provided a rallying point and an entree to more talks with AT&T.

"It helped marshal our forces around this idea of connected communities," said Balbier. "We have a relationship with AT&T that is positive, that allows us to work as partners. We're going to build on that opportunity."

The city cable contract also ensures the creation of a city I-Net connecting 23 city buildings, including the City-County Building, Municipal Courts Building and police stations.

The costs will be paid by 17 cents of a 25-cent-per-month fee charged to the city's 102,000 cable TV subscribers.

The subscribers' fee also includes 3 cents a month for 80 cable modems at senior citizen recreation centers. Cable modems are slower than fiber optics, but faster than phone dial-up access. Each cable modem can operate up to three computers, according to Richard H. Emenecker, region director of franchising for AT&T Broadband Services.

The fee also includes a nickel a month to cover the cost of bringing the fiber optics to a pole near certain community organizations.

The contract calls for a community access network made up of one group from each of 88 city neighborhoods, each group nominated by a City Council member. The groups still would have to pay to bring the fiber or a cable modem in from the pole and other expenses.

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