Should your school district buy or build your networks?

  • Building and managing your own dark fiber network can put a strain on budget and IT resources.
  • Choosing to partner with a managed service provider gives you faster access to the latest technologies.

For leaders of K-12 school districts, it’s important to know that the Federal Communications Commission’s 2014 E-Rate Modernization Order equalized the E-Rate funding eligibility treatment of dark and lit fiber.

First question: what is dark fiber?

Dark fiber is fiber-optic cabling that is not lit by a service provider. Schools can use this cabling to build and maintain their own networks now or as future needs arise. Owning or leasing a dark fiber network can be a carefully thought-out strategy for delivering additional capacity as bandwidth needs or student populations grow. But there are also many costs involved beyond the initial purchase or lease price of the dark fiber.

As you consider building your own dark fiber network versus purchasing a managed network from a service provider, keep these three factors in mind to guide your decision:

1. Would you rather incur a large upfront capital expense or make monthly payments over time?

Buying or leasing dark fiber and building your own network might require a significant upfront capital expense instead of an ongoing operational cost.

If you’ve passed a local bond issue or are otherwise equipped to handle such a capital outlay, then buying or leasing your own dark fiber network might make sense. But if your upfront capital investment is limited, then paying a consistent monthly recurring fee to a service provide for the life of the contract may be easier to budget and will help to limit the possibility of unexpected costs down the road.

2. Does your school district have the internal capacity to manage its own network?

You should expect that managing your own network and ensuring a high level of performance generally requires that you have dedicated network professionals on your IT staff.

Do you have dedicated network engineers who can monitor and manage the network 24 hours a day, seven days a week? You’ll need to keep the network operating at a high level—without taking away from the district’s other mission-critical IT functions, such as supporting teachers and students. If you don’t have those folks on your current staff, do you have local resources available to hire and pay benefits?

If your answer to these questions is “no,” then entrusting the design and management of your network to a proven service provider can help you avoid costly mistakes, improve efficiencies, and ensure operational continuity.

3. How rapidly do you want to be able to respond to new changes in network technology?

Owning your own dark fiber network locks you into operating and managing that network and its specific technologies for the long term (typically 10 to 20 years). This can make it difficult for you or your successors to change course in the future.

Technology is evolving so rapidly that it can be hard for school districts to recover costs and see a return on investment before the technology becomes obsolete. Conversely, by outsourcing your network to a service provider, you can take advantage of new advancements in technology as they happen. For example, technologies that use software-defined networking (SDN) architecture are newly available and can help enable schools to adjust bandwidth on the fly. This way, you only pay for the portion you use each month.

If it’s important for you to be able to take advantage of the latest technologies as they are released, then purchasing network services and related management from a top-quality service provider might be the better way to go.

To dig deeper into the factors involved in choosing dark fiber versus purchasing managed network services from a service provider, download the Build or Buy white paper from AT&T.


Dennis Pierce Writer Sponsored post About Dennis

The former Editor in Chief of eSchool Media, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer. He has been covering education and technology for nearly 18 years. All opinions are his own. Dennis can be reached at