Understanding Bandwidth (the “speed” of your connection to the Internet)
In recent years, Deer Park School District has made significant investments in technology at every level and in every department – these investments have been in network infrastructure as well as in access to devices in our classrooms. While the number of devices on the network has tripled in the last few years, demand for Internet-based resources has grown almost exponentially. As a result of this increased demand, we’ve seen Internet speeds decrease. Hopefully, the following will give you an idea of what’s happening and what’s being done about it.
When so much of what we’re accessing on our computers and using to teach kids is Internet-based, sluggishness can be as frustrating as crawling along in bumper-to-bumper traffic on an interstate highway. We all know it’s possible to go faster, because we’ve experienced faster speeds, but in the same way, we also know that peak demand (rush hour) can cause frustrating slowness because we’ve all experienced being stuck in gridlock.
The concept of “bandwidth” can be difficult to describe. It’s one of those technology terms that gets thrown around frequently, but it’s rarely understood. For most, Internet bandwidth is an inexhaustible resource and they take it for granted with little appreciation. Particularly in learning environments, we tend to not think about bandwidth limitations, or the fact that certain activities consume a significant share of a collective resource. Really, unless you’re an IT person – concerned with keeping things running smoothly bandwidth probably never crosses your mind.
There are two helpful analogies that may help you better understand bandwidth; the first is thinking of bandwidth like water coming through the pipes that provide water to your home. The premise is simple – a pipe of a specific diameter can only carry a certain volume of water. Water pipe is often 1 inch for a residential home, while commercial locations or schools may have a 4 or 6 inch pipe for water. While the speed with which water enters the pipe may be the same at each location (in the case of 1″ pipe vs. 6″ pipe), the volume of water being delivered through the pipes is significantly different. So, even though actual speed (rate of flow) may be exactly the same, the amount of water delivered per minute or hour through the 6″ pipe is far greater than what can be delivered via the 1″ pipe. And so it is with the Internet – the larger the “pipe,” the more people that can use the Internet without significant slowdowns.
Think about the water supply in your own home: You may experience significant drops in water pressure if a number of people or devices are using the water at the same time. Taking a shower while the dishwasher is running, the washing machine is going, and the sprinkler system in on will generally result in poor flow at each device. If you want to be able to do all these things at once, you wouldn’t need more speed, you would need a bigger pipe (more volume!).
Similarly, and continuing the analogy we started with, “Internet traffic” behaves very much like traffic on the roads we drive. Highways with two lanes going in each direction can carry a higher volume of cars than highways with only one lane in each direction, while freeways with four lanes in each direction can carry even more still. When traffic loads are light, it’s easy to travel down the road at the speed limit. However, when traffic gets congested during peak use, speeds often slow to a crawl unless there are enough lanes for all the traffic – we’ve all experienced this…
So, just like the shower that has water trickling from the shower head or the freeway traffic that has literally slowed to a crawl, Internet speeds get frustratingly slow when bandwidth is being used at its full capacity – this is why Internet pages load slowly when you’re at home and the whole family is streaming their favorite movie on different device, or when you’re a Seahawks game or some other massive gathering of people, or when you’re sitting at your computer here in Deer Park in the middle of the day and it seems to be crawling along. When you’ve used your available bandwidth, it seems as though you’ve been magically transported back to the days of dial up – but remember, the slowness rarely has anything to do with speed, it’s lack of capacity!
Internet Use in DPSD
Alright, let’s be face it, installing new (larger) pipes in our homes or adding more lanes to the freeways we travel can be incredibly expensive and time-consuming. The same is true with increasing Internet bandwidth. As a semi-rural school district, Deer Park’s options for increased bandwidth are a bit limited and generally very expensive. To help with costs, we have always made use of the Federal E-rate program, and we’ve been successful in increasing our available Internet bandwidth from 3Mpbs in 2006, to our present 1Gbps connection in place today (twice the 500Mbps connection we had in 2016-17). While the e-rate program can help subsidize our costs, it’s a bureaucratic federal program with lots of string attached; so upgrades tied to e-rate dollars rarely happen quickly.
But let’s get some perspective about what 1Gbps means for a school district of 2500 students and how much of that available bandwidth we’re using. The easiest way to get some perspective on the issue is to compare our use with other districts. In the graphs below, you’ll see Deer Park’s bandwidth use on the left, compared with another school district in our state on the right. A few things will jump out at you:
- Nine Mile Falls SD has about 1000 fewer students, yet DPSD regularly uses more than 6 times the bandwidth of NMFSD.
- West Valley SD has over 100o more students than DPSD and yet we are using twice the bandwidth.
- Mount Vernon SD, a district far more than twice Deer Park’s size, uses a similar amount of bandwidth each day/month.
- In fact, as you’ll see below DPSD has similar bandwidth use to Mead SD, a district of more than 10,000!
- And just so you can see what kind of bandwidth a huge school district uses, Kent School District’s graph is at the bottom (yes, their use regularly approaches 3 Gigabits).
So, are we doing something wrong in Deer Park? Why is DPSD using so much bandwidth (comparatively) on a daily/monthly basis? The quick answer to that question is, “no, we’re not doing anything wrong.,”
Okay then, if there’s nothing “wrong” with our infrastructure or nothing nefarious taking place on our network, are the 1800 Chrome devices the reason we’re using so much bandwidth? Yes and no. While the Chrome devices are definitely a contributing factor, we’ve got a significant number of web-based resources and applications we’re using in our schools on a daily basis. There are some GREAT things happening with apps and web-based applications in our classrooms, but we do need to remember that we’ve got some bandwidth limitations. It’s frustrating for everyone when you’re at a computer trying to get work done or teach a lesson and you’re stuck “sitting in traffic” (back to the highway analogy!).
As it has been for the past year we will continue to block most of the streaming services (Pandora, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Netflix, Hulu, and Ustream to name a few) – many of you have already discovered this the hard way. Of course, if you have a short-term need for a lesson or a presentation or something, let one of the folks in IT know and they’ll get you the access you need.
What are some of the web-apps we depend upon each day in Deer Park?