When deciding how to connect your schools to fiber, there are a number of options to consider. Districts can connect using a “lit” fiber service from a provider, or they can buy or rent “dark” fiber to create their own transport services.
"Lit fiber" refers to fiber-optic cable (used for carrying data between two designated points) that has been installed and activated by carriers (service providers). These carriers lease access to their fiber-optic cables and provide fully-managed services to clients for a monthly recurring fee. Currently, lit fiber is the most common way that school districts and businesses receive transport and Internet access.
"Dark fiber" refers to fiber-optic cable that has already been installed (either buried or aerial) but is not yet in use. Dark fiber is typically sold without any equipment on the ends of the fiber (this service is known as leased dark fiber) and the customer is responsible for adding the electronics at both ends. Thousands of miles of dark fiber are available in the United States. For school districts near dark fiber, this service could be a viable alternative to “lit” services, as it provides cost and scalability advantages.
"Self-Provisioned" In many rural areas, telecommunications and broadband providers have little economic incentive to build out fiber-optic networks. Schools in these locations have often been unable to find affordable high-speed broadband. Given the recent changes in E-rate, schools now have the option to affordably build out their own dark fiber to their schools in a process known as self-provisioned, as long as they can demonstrate that it is the lowest-cost option.
Deciding which solution to choose can be difficult, although it can be beneficial to consider and compare the relative cost of various options. Dark vs. lit fiber is a classic “own vs. rent” comparison where the economics of the different options will be presented to you very differently, and you will need to model the two options in order to compare them equally.
Apart from the comparison of costs, it is also critical to consider other factors such as timing, resource demands, skill requirements, and fiber network quality factors (latency, link loss, budgets, plant design, etc) for all the services you are interested in. Lit fiber, leased dark fiber, and self-provisioned services are extremely location- and situation-sensitive. Every school and district should consider the different options based on their own unique situation and get a number of competitive bids including pricing and project timelines before making their decision.
With all three types of services, the overall design of the network is a significant short and long term factor. The physical and logical design is impacted by factors such as the use of cloud-based services, existing fiber infrastructure within a community, district campus locations, size, and provider point of presence (POP) locations. Considering your traffic patterns and need for resiliency should drive your network topology. Researching where the fiber assets in your community are currently located and other institutions such as libraries and hospitals that would benefit from better connectivity can help you start making decisions about which option might be best for you and for your community.
In some cases, fiber may not be the best connectivity solution. Particularly for smaller school districts, wireless, cable, or even business grade DSL could offer sufficient bandwidth to meet digital learning goals at a more reasonable cost. Although there are many benefits to fiber, it is important to consider a school district’s total bandwidth needs, availability of service providers, and availability of solutions when deciding on the best way to obtain high-speed broadband.