Emerging from the last recession, internet connectivity for the California Community Colleges was in jeopardy. Deep budget cuts had reduced capacity and the health of a network of thousands of miles of fiber optic circuits connecting colleges to the Corporation for Educational Network Initiatives in California (CENIC) backbone.

CENIC operates the California Research and Education Network (CalREN), a high-bandwidth, high-capacity network consisting of 3,800 miles of CENIC-owned and managed fiber. CENIC consists of charter members from the California Community Colleges, University of California, California State University, Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, University of Southern California, K-12 and the California Public Libraries.

Partnering with CENIC, the Chancellor’s Office Digital Innovation and Infrastructure Division and the CCC Technology Center provide:

  • Primary connections at all colleges and districts to the CalREN for data, internet access and video.
  • Diverse backup circuits at college and district sites to ensure the internet is available 24/7.

Following the last recession, many colleges no longer had backup circuits. Additionally, many circuits were saturated and could not meet the demands of 30-percent year-over-year traffic increases due to the proliferation of connected devices and rich data applications. 

To address the problem of near-future bandwidth demand, the Chancellor’s Office and the CCC Technology Center lobbied for funding to upgrade the network starting in FY 2016-17. Today, all colleges have backup circuits, and of the 327 circuits that connect college campuses, 258 have been upgraded. Upgrades will continue as budgets allow.

Connectivity solutions during the COVID-19 crisis

With the majority of students, faculty and staff now connecting from home, circuit traffic to college campuses has decreased as data flow between the home Internet Service Provider (ISP) and applications located in the cloud travel over the public internet, bypassing CENIC connections. All CCC systemwide applications are now located in the cloud.

Broadband connectivity through ISPs becomes more critical than ever with the substantial shift to remote work among campus community members. Unfortunately, many rural areas of California are poorly served with low broadband adoption, rendering residents in these areas at a disadvantage during the pandemic.

During an April webinar with student media representatives, Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley referenced the digital divide: “Clearly, this episode has exposed the problems with the digital divide, with the lack of access to broadband. Many of our students don’t have quality broadband or any Wi-Fi at home. If there is a silver-lining in this craziness, it has exposed this problem: the most technologically advanced state in the nation has some of the worst access to broadband in the country.” 

Multiple ISPs are offering low-cost and free options for broadband connectivity during the pandemic, and information is available on the California Virtual Campus – Online Education Initiative website.

As another solution, colleges are encouraged to leave on campus Wi-Fi, when feasible, so that campus community members might get better connectivity through the CENIC network if they are able to locate themselves nearby. 

California’s Public Libraries, which also use the CENIC network, are doing the same to boost connectivity, and regional initiatives are offering additional solutions. In the Sacramento area, the City of Sacramento, SacRT and the California State Transportation Agency launched mobile Wi-Fi buses in communities with limited high-speed internet access in early May, selected based on digital divide research and information provided from local school districts and community organizations.

The Chancellor’s Office has also leveraged the California Connects Mobile Internet program, a low-cost internet alternative available to students, faculty and staff. During the month of April, more than 1,500 students in need were provided with California Connects mobile hotspots and internet service through Sprint. Prior to COVID-19, more than 2,600 foster youth and Mathematics, Engineering, Sciences Achievement (MESA) students were provided a mobile hotspot and one year of broadband internet access. Additional mobile hotspot devices (one-time fee) and monthly service are available for purchase through CollegeBuys, and bulk purchasing is available by contacting Brett Chaponot.

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