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Monday, August 20, 2012 - 2:02am

N Ga. Broadband Connects Schools, Businesses

A new broadband network in the northeast Georgia mountains is still a few months from completion, but it’s already bringing connections 20 to 50 times faster than ever before to area schools.

A single school in Lumpkin County now has more internet bandwidth than the entire district put together did just a year ago.

In White County Schools, the pipeline to the internet is 50 times larger than it used to be. Teachers can incorporate previously hard-to-download steaming video or videoconferencing. And the district’s 400 iPads can all now stream video simultaneously.

The improved access has opened doors district officials would have never considered before.

“The other day we had a student that was hospital homebound. We were able to take an iPad to two different locations and do Facetime and stream the teacher live from her classroom to the student’s home so they were able to catch up,” said William Sperin, the district’s technology director. “We wouldn’t have even thought of doing that before with the slower internet.”

The core of the $42 million broadband network is finished, but now the North Georgia Network is working on connections to businesses, schools and other users. Work on the complete 1,000-plus miles of fiber-optic connections should be done by the end of the year.

At North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega, students are returning to classes this week with better internet connections than they have ever had on campus. The college has 40 times more broadband capacity now that it’s hooked into the fiber-optic network.

The project also links the college with nearby school systems, creating new avenues for collaboration and sharing.

“A professor at [what will soon be called] the University of North Georgia can send a class to a high school student in White County, or folks in White County can share a class with folks in Lumpkin, Dawson, Habersham or Union,” said Bryson Payne, the college’s former chief information officer. He is now creating a new computer science program at the school.

“That’s really one of the easiest, low-hanging fruits for us. We have tremendous language programs, for example, here at North Georgia. We teach Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and almost none of the high schools up in our area have that kind of luxury, professors who can teach across that number of languages,” he said.

Economic development officials say the network will bolster existing businesses and attract new high-tech companies in the eight-county region.

Grants paid for the North Georgia Network to install a fiber-optic connection to the network in Laura James’ home in southern Lumpkin County. She runs her four-year-old business Going Green Lawn Service there.

“I have to use software that is available on the internet for my design services, so it’s going to really help the speed of that – uploading and downloading photographs and images for my business,” James said. “At the same time, I’m working on my horticulture degree, so it helps me even with completing my degree.”

James said 95 percent of her correspondence, billing, proposals and other customer interactions are online. She expects the faster connection will help her grow her young business and draw new people to Lumpkin County.

Vice President Joe Biden came to Georgia in late 2009 to announce the federal money for the project. A $33 million federal stimulus grant is paying for most of it, with local money covering the remaining $9 million.