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Network upgrades to push up cost of LA schools' massive iPad project

An average of $750,000 per school is budgeted for wifi upgrades necessary for every student to have an iPad.
An average of $750,000 per school is budgeted for wifi upgrades necessary for every student to have an iPad. Cloned Milkmen/Flickr

The L.A. Unified school district is planning to spend more than $700 million to upgrade servers, pull wire and connect antiquated schools to a data grid - a necessary part of its massive effort to get every student and teacher on wifi, according to district documents.

But only some of those costs are included in the district's $1 billion estimate for the program.

The $700 million is a conservative estimate pieced together by KPCC from several documents - L.A. Unified officials would not provide a total cost of network upgrades.

The district's IT Strategic Execution Plan, compiled last year, indicates 694 schools need to be upgraded - all but 63 of the district's campuses. A construction list for 2014 shows an estimated cost of $297 million to upgrade 402 schools next year - about $750,000 each.

If the rest of the schools come in at about the same amount, that adds up to $520 million for school buildings alone. And technology experts said that's not the entire cost.

The district must upgrade its data center in order to handle the mass of new devices - and new risks - that come with handing every student a computer.

Two other district documents show upgrades to the central system will cost $387 million.

Total costs may be even higher. Supt. John Deasy requested $854 million for technology upgrades this month in his proposal for spending funds from the district's final construction bond, Measure Q - that's on top of hundreds of millions more from prior bonds.  But the district's spending categories make it impossible to tell whether some network costs are entangled with other expenses, such as training staff to teach with iPads.

However you slice it, the proposed network costs exceed the $500 million the district expects to spend on the devices themselves and will take years to complete.

The reason the upgrades are necessary is clear: when schools first got online in the nineties, there was nowhere near the network demands required for every student to stream video from an iPad.  And schools face special challenges in upgrading networks.

"Schools have a particular problem, and from an engineering aspect, there is no cheap way to fix it," said Joe Monaly, a network engineer at Caltech.

He said often central server and wire systems for schools were put in the front office. Monaly said it would be extremely expensive to try to run copper wire throughout the school to scale that set-up for high capacity wifi. In many cases, it would be more efficient to start over.

Then there is the challenge of getting the school connected to the grid. L.A. Unified will have to pay to lay cable at the street level or lease it from a utility such as AT&T or the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which like many utilities ended up with loads of extra cable after the dot-com bust.

L.A. Unified officials will not disclose how they will connect the schools. Caltech pays tens of thousands of dollars to lease its connection, according to Patrick Cahalan, a systems analyst for Caltech. He estimates it will cost L.A. Unified much more.

"That's to connect two facilities in the same city directly to each other," Cahalan said. "With LAUSD, you are talking about connecting everyone of those independent schools."

It's almost like putting a whole city online. L.A. Unified has more students than Boston or Seattle has residents.

And while many the expenses will accrue annually, such as the cable lease and IT workers' salaries, some of the costlier parts of the project, such as running wire throughout schools, will last at least 25 years, the tech experts said.

And some of those costs can be defrayed. LA Unified is bringing on a consultant to help leverage a federal technology grant program called E-Rate. It's already secured $78 million from the national program.

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