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UEN: millions served, every day

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 9 2013 9:52 p.m. MDT

UEN CEO Ray Timothy oversees a technology network that connects Utah educators from all corners of the state.

Lee Benson

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SALT LAKE CITY — Few people know Utah education like Ray Timothy.

A former fifth-grade teacher and native of the small northern Utah town of Garland, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah, his master’s degree from Brigham Young University and his Ph.D. from Utah State University. After that, he taught at four elementary schools and a middle school, followed by stints as a vice principal or principal at two more elementary schools and a high school. He then sandwiched four and a half years as deputy superintendent in the State Office of Education between stints as superintendent in the Millard and Park City school districts.

He’s worked for more schools than Urban Meyer.

And now?

Now he’s working for all of them.

It’s been a year since Timothy, 59, left his post in Park City to take over as CEO and executive director of the Utah Education Network — UEN for short — the statewide collaboration that connects Utah schools, colleges, applied technology campuses and libraries. After conducting a nationwide search for a successor to outgoing director Mike Petersen, the UEN board discovered precisely what it was looking for right here at home.

Timothy jumped at the chance to take over the helm of an organization he’d long admired and utilized while wearing his many hats during his three-plus decades as an educator around the state. Better than most, he knew that while Utah may not lead the nation in class size, or expenditure per child, or teacher salaries, when it comes to being connected in the Internet Age, the Beehive state is in a class all its own. In an exclusive conversation with the Deseret News, the new UEN chief explains why.

DN: Thank you for visiting with us. First, could you please describe in layman’s terms what UEN is.

RT: Simply put, it is a network of technology and people that connects students, educators and anyone else associated with education throughout the state of Utah.

DN: And it does that how?

RT: Through network infrastructure that carries high-speed data and applications to communities, schools and libraries via the Internet and our television station, KUEN-TV. There are very few places in the state that are not connected to UEN. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Blanding or Bountiful, you have the same access to resources.

DN: What types of services are provided?

RT: It’s really a wide range. Beyond the myriad of information available through the Internet, UEN also connects classrooms. For example we connect high school students in Orderville to professors at USU in Logan. UEN connects teachers to interactive training tools so they teach more effectively. UEN connects colleagues via videoconferencing so they don’t have to leave their campuses for meetings. UEN connects teachers and students to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) resources. UEN connects schools to 19,000 videos, images and documents that are instantly available online. UEN connects parents and educators via classroom websites. And it’s all available day and night, seven days a week.

DN: That is no small audience.

RT: True. In fact, if UEN were a school district, it would rank in the top three nationally in the number of students served. New York City is No. 1 with 1.4 million students. Los Angeles is No. 2 with nearly 700,000 students, but UEN would be No. 3 with over 600,000 public school students. And that’s just public ed students. UEN also serves more than 200,000 students in college and applied technology. We serve 64,000 educators and staff from schools through universities. We also provide resources for Utah’s 285,000 preschoolers under the age of 6. In addition we serve Utah public libraries and our TV station reaches over 900,000 households. It adds up to well over a million students, educators, library patrons and viewers statewide.

DN: It’s not your grandfather’s way of connecting, is it?

RT: Absolutely not. We now have more access to more resources than has ever existed in any generation. Our teachers have more tools and so do students. And it just keeps increasing. I’m constantly impressed with how much students know about research and how fast they can pinpoint information. My generation, we’re the technological immigrants, we’re new to it, trying to keep up with it the best we can. But most kids are natives. They’ve always lived in a digital world. To them, it’s intuitive.

DN: And here in Utah we’re at the forefront of all this connectivity?

RT: I think we are the premier education network in the entire nation. Many states are making progress, but less than a handful are even close to what we do. We are extremely fortunate. I went to a recent conference called US Ignite. It’s a national initiative to expand broadband connections throughout the country, particularly in remote rural areas. The goal is to connect every school with at least 1 (gigabyte) of bandwidth. That’s down the road five to 10 years in most places, but in Utah we already have 1 gig connectivity to most rural and urban schools. Along the Wasatch Front all of our high schools have 1 gig connectivity and now they’re asking for 2 gig and we’re in the process of upgrading that to as much as 10 gig. We now have a metro ring along the Wasatch Front with 100 gig capacity to support advanced research at our universities.

DN: Why has Utah been able to move so quickly to the forefront?

RT: In a word, collaboration. The cooperation we have on all levels — the Legislature, the governor’s office, the State Board of Regents, school districts and schools,and telecom providers — is tremendous. That’s the key. When I was deputy superintendent at the state office I’d meet with cohorts from other states and talk about UEN. They’d say, “You have what?” They marveled that we could get everyone to sit down at the same table and agree on a single network. In a sense, UEN is the table where these divergent entities collaborate on behalf of students and educators. We’re more than a broadband network. We’re also a consortium of human collaborators who want the best for Utah students.

DN: How was Utah able to avoid the infighting and develop such a cohesive network?

RT: The Utah Legislature established UEN in 1993 to coordinate telecom technology for public education and higher education. But years earlier schools and the University of Utah were collaborating on the use of closed circuit TV in classrooms. Analog teleconferencing started in 1978 and later expanded and became known as EDNET. In 1986 Weber State’s TV station became available and the State Board of Regents and the U. of U. stepped in to establish KULC Channel 9 (later KUEN) to serve higher education and public education. Now all of our services are digital and consolidated as UEN. Technology has evolved, but the collaboration of public education and higher education has been ongoing since the start.

DN: You said you also collaborate with telecom providers?

RT: We own and operate only about 2 percent of our circuits and they’re in remote areas such as Navajo Mountain in San Juan County and Manila in Daggett County. For the rest of the state we contract with a variety of vendors. They range from big outfits like CenturyLink and Comcast to smaller firms like CentraCom, South Central, Strata and Beehive.

DN: So UEN is a public and private partnership? How does that work?

RT: Yes. We’re like the anchor tenant in a shopping center. Our presence helps spur economic development with long-term contracts. Education provides the incentive for the telecommunication providers to build the infrastructure and make the connections that otherwise might not happen. For example Emery Telcom invested over $2 million to bury the fiber that now connects Price to Moab. It made sense to do it because the schools needed it and entire communities would have more bandwidth and reliability. The project is cost-effective and everyone benefits as a result. There’s also another big benefit from leasing circuits and that’s E-rate.

DN: What is E-rate?

RT: It’s the FCC’s program to lower the cost of connecting public schools. It’s funded by phone customers. It shows up as a fee on your phone bill called Universal Service Fund. The leasing of telco circuits makes some of those costs eligible for E-rate discounts.

DN: So when Utahns talk on their phones, they’re helping to pay for UEN?

RT: Yes, that fee on your phone bill helps UEN and Utah schools and libraries. But it’s not just from Utahns. Phone customers throughout the nation pay into the Universal Service Fund, and we’ve been aggressive in using those funds for Utah education. The question is, are we getting our fair share?

DN: So what’s the answer? Does Utah get as much back from the Universal Service Fund as is paid into it?

RT: We’re getting closer. When E-rate started we claimed only a few cents on every dollar Utahns paid into the system through their phone use. Now we’re getting back nearly 80 percent. We see that increasing even more.

DN: Speaking of funding, what is UEN’s overall budget and what are the sources of those funds?

RT: Last year we had an annual budget of nearly $45 million. About 40 percent is from state appropriations, and the rest from various grants and programs, such as E-rate that brought in nearly $12 million. The big picture is that for every dollar the state appropriates to UEN, we’ve found a match of $1.43 from other sources. That’s a bargain for Utah taxpayers.

DN: What services do all those dollars fund?

RT: There are three big categories. First, we provide broadband and broadcast infrastructure. That’s about 70 percent of our budget. Second, we provide applications that flow on that infrastructure — services such as an online library for all schools and a learning management system for higher education. That’s roughly 25 percent of our budget. Third, we provide support and operational services to assist those who use the infrastructure and applications. That’s about 5 percent of our budget.

DN: How many employees do you have and what to they do?

RT: It’s a diverse and passionate group of 112. We have network, software and broadcast engineers. We have security, communications and finance experts. We have instructional specialists, trainers and leaders. Most have advanced degrees and professional certifications. Together with our board and advisory council we research, plan, implement and evaluate our services. We constantly seek to understand what our users need, what’s possible now, what’s likely in the future and how we can improve the ways we serve Utah education.

DN: In the year you’ve been CEO, what has been the biggest revelation to you about UEN?

RT: A couple of things have surprised me. One is the amount of information that is being requested and received on a daily basis. Just the amount of activity. You’d be amazed at how much activity there is going on with college students from 11 at night to 2 or 3 in the morning. I’m talking about working on their assignments. The way the Internet is being accessed and used at all levels is just tremendous.

DN: And the second surprise?

RT: The constant threats to security. I had no idea. We get millions of hits on a regular basis trying to find ways to break into the system. That just surprises me. They try to get in so they can use our backbone to ride the Internet and access others. About 75 percent of the attempts are from within the country, they’re not terrorist organizations, they just want to use us for their own purposes. But it’s hard to break through. We have a full-time security system in place. We are constantly making sure we have a secure network.

DN: What would you say to the public about the value of UEN?

RT: We’re extremely fortunate to have UEN here in the state of Utah. Demographically, we’re the nation’s youngest state and young people are digitally connected. We have world-class research institutions and they require broadband. Our legislative leaders, the executive branch and our education system all recognize how important it is to provide statewide infrastructure for education. That’s what UEN does. If you took UEN out of the picture you would have every school district on its own, every institution of higher learning doing its own thing. We don’t have to duplicate services and waste dollars because everything’s under the same roof.

DN: Your goals for the future?

RT: To keep connecting and make sure we maintain a sustainable pace with our growth. Every year we see an increase of approximately 12,000 to 15,000 students. That’s about 24 elementary schools that need to be built and connected each year. UEN infrastructure is a critical component to help us reach the governor’s goal of having at least 66 percent of our adults with a postsecondary degree or certificate by the year 2020. Education relies on access to quality resources. The more access we have the better we will all be educated.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: benson@deseretnews.com

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