FORT KENT, Maine — Students and teachers at the area high school have just about everything they need for planning and developing online coursework, projects and tests.

The only thing they haven’t had since the beginning of the school year is a reliable connection to the Internet.

Like school districts around the state, SAD 27 in the Fort Kent area receives computer equipment such as iPads, laptop computers and support through the state Department of Education’s Maine Learning Technology Initiative. The “laptop program” started by former Gov. Angus King in 2001 is now aimed at getting computer technology into the hands of students and teachers in grades 7-12 statewide.

And like a handful of those schools around the state, Fort Kent Community High School this year is experiencing some roadblocks on the way to the information highway with slow connectivity and available bandwidth stretched to the limits.

“We’ve been with MLTI since the beginning, and last year was our 13th year,” Ann Marie Guerrette, SAD 27 technology coordinator, said Thursday. “There has been no problem until this year, [and] this year, we started having problems day one.”

About 400 students in grades 7-12 attempt to access the Internet through one of 23 fixed wireless “access points” during a regular school day in the high and middle school building, using MLTI-supplied Apple iPads or MacBook Air laptop computers, Guerrette said.

“The students and teachers can’t connect,” she said. “And when they do connect, they can’t stay on because they get dropped.”

When the connection is sustained, Guerette said, it is at speeds so slow, students are requesting permission to go off-campus where they can access public WiFi to complete their work.

“It gets extremely slow,” said Sharon Chasse, district technology integrator. “After the first few days of this, I felt I’d be almost better off working from home.”

In one case, she said, a teacher told her that after senior students spent a large amount of time attempting to create a project online to present to the class, they became so frustrated that they asked if they could instead turn in a poster using paper and drawing materials.

Frustrating is how SAD 27 administrators, staff and students are describing the situation and efforts to identify and fix the problem.

Since September, MLTI has sent in teams of technicians three times to try and figure out what is going on, but so far, the district has not heard back from anyone how to resolve the issue.

“Apple sent in a group from Georgia in January, and they spent half a day here,” Tim Doak, SAD 27 superintendent, said Wednesday. “They never found anything but did say they narrowed it down to something with the access points in the building, but no one is giving us any real answers.”

Late Friday, Doak said he was told another tech team from Apple and MLTI was scheduled to come to the high school in the coming week with a possible fix for the problem.

SAD 27 pays $90,000 each year to participate in the Maine Learning Technologies Initiative and that covers the technical support, he said.

“We are invested in [MLTI] for four years to lease the computers and devices from the state,” Doak said. “You have to use their access points.”

It is through these MLTI supplied access points — small wireless router-type devices attached to the ceilings around the building — that students and staff access the Internet.

Earlier this year, Guerrette installed several access point devices independent from the MLTI boxes and experienced few problems connecting and staying connected to the Internet when using those.

Unfortunately, Doak said, replacing the existing and apparently balky MLTI access points with new, SAD 27-purchased devices would be cost prohibitive.

Under MLTI, the district pays about $1 per student per year to connect to the Internet and as part of the four-year contract, receives upgraded Apple devices at costs far below retail prices.

“I’m not even sure the contract would let us get rid of and replace those access points,” Doak said. “And if we were on our own, there is no way the district could afford to update technology every three years like we currently do.”

Mike Muir, policy director at MLTI, agrees SAD 27 is in a frustrating situation.

“This is not a trivial problem, but it’s a complex system,” he said, adding that SAD 27 was not alone in facing the connectivity issues. “Our vendors identified a handful of districts in Maine that were having this strange WiFi behavior, [and] they collected a lot of data and have been analyzing it.”

That process, Muir said, is time consuming but necessary to identify what is causing the issue and ultimately providing the correct fix.

Adding to the challenge, Muir said, is that each of the few districts around the state experiencing connectivity problems is going to require a different approach.

While he did not provide the names of the other school districts having issues, Muir said that hardware malfunctions, software problems, overloading the available bandwidth or some combination of any of these could be the culprits.

“Keep in mind that the problems are a complex mix of a variety of issues,” he said. “It is when there are several of these complicating factors in place at one time that there become network glitches, [and] this is why, too, we will not have a single solution for all schools impacted, [and] we will have to customize interventions to each school and the specific mix of variables impacting the network at their school.”

Muir pointed out the existing wireless networks within Maine schools are being stretched to their limits but are actually working better than he would have thought, given the daily loads on them.

“These systems were designed for the MLTI devices supplied to the schools,” he said. “But in some places, the schools have added other online devices like robotics and wireless printers, [and] everyone — teachers and students — have their own devices like personal smartphones or tablets they use in addition to MLTI devices.”

Not at SAD 27, according to Guerrette.

Students and faculty may bring personal phones or computers into the building, but they are not permitted to use them to access the Internet using SAD 27 networks.

Guerrette is fairly confident that the issue at Fort Kent Community High School is the access points, though she can’t understand why, given nothing has changed in the building from the last school year.

She also pointed out that other SAD 27 buildings such as the elementary school in town are not experiencing the problems, which indicates the issue is with in-building devices, not the overall Internet provider.

The group in charge of managing the Internet connectivity to the schools in Maine is confident the issue is within the high school building in Fort Kent and not the connection to the outside world.

Networkmaine is a consortium among the University of Maine, the Maine Department of Education, the Maine State Library and the state’s office of information technology.

“We run a statewide research and education network for Maine schools and libraries,” said Jeffrey Letourneau, Networkmaine executive director. “That is what SAD 27 is connected to.”

Letourneau said he was not all that familiar with the problems plaguing SAD 27, but he did say the 1 gigabyte of network bandwidth coming in and out of the district is more than enough to meet its needs.

“They have a lot of capacity,” he said. “We have not heard any complaints as far as the external connections.”

Chasse, the technology integrator for SAD 27, said that since September, teachers have started developing two lesson plans for their classes — one that uses technology and a “Plan B” for when that technology fails.

Robby Nadeau, a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher in the building, said he is getting pretty good at developing those alternate plans when his students are unable to connect to the Internet.

“We are really trying to push the use of technology in the classroom, and our teachers have embraced it,” he said. “But there is a real feeling this year we have taken a huge step backward when they can have great lessons planned but then can’t complete them because they can’t get online.”

Nadeau said he spent two of his classes this past week with his students attempting to load a video crucial to a planned research project.

“At first when it didn’t work, I changed up the lesson schedule,” he said. “But when it did not work on the second day, I didn’t want to waste anymore time, so I hooked up my Apple TV to my cellphone’s hotspot, and we used that.”

Nadeau’s frustration is shared by his students who say that the difference in network connectivity between the elementary and high school/middle school buildings is dramatic.

Student Emily Ouellette has grown frustrated with the system as the year progressed.

“I was at the elementary school last year, and it was way better than it is here,” she said.

Students and teachers also communicate and complete class work online using a program called eBackpack in which they assign, complete, exchange and grade homework assignments.

When the connectivity does not work, that exchange halts, Chasse said.

Because the issue is affecting teaching at the school, Doak and Guerrette want answers either from MLTI or the vendors at Apple who installed the access points.

So far, Guerrette said, no one has told them anything or indicated they are going to do anything about it, other than the vendors are working on “mitigating a strategic plan.”

Guerrette and Doak said they were aware of other districts around the state experiencing similar issues, including in Bangor, South Portland and Auburn.

At the Auburn School Department, technology director Peter Robinson said Thursday that his schools have hit their maximum bandwidth capability and that has slowed connectivity down a bit.

“But it is something we are able to adapt to,” he said. “We are not experiencing anything like SAD 27 and are not having the access point issues they are having.”

Efforts to reach administrators in Bangor and South Portland last week were unsuccessful.

However, one school in Maine that was experiencing slow and dropped connection issues because of an overloaded network capacity has taken matters into its own hands.

Four years ago, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics went out on its own to contract with an outside Internet provider at a cost of $1,900 per month.

Not only was the Maine School of Science and Mathematics sharing bandwidth with the Limestone school department, the resident Maine School of Science and Mathematics students do a great deal of online research and are allowed to access social media sites, which take up a huge amount of the available bandwidth, according to Mike Lambert, chief operating officer at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics.

“The [Networkmaine] system was too slow for what we need,” he said. “We had a need for speed.

“At the time, RSU 39’s wireless was good for 50 megabytes per second, and our current system is rated at 100 megabytes, and there are days that is too small,” Lambert said.

The cost to go it alone is more than worth it, he said.

Muir understands there are increasing demands for ever greater Internet access among Maine’s schools but is confident the infrastructure is sufficient to meet current needs.

At the same time, he is sympathetic to the situation in SAD 27.

“We are working to find a solution,” he said. “But it really is like chasing down the end of a thread, [and] once you find it, then you can start pulling.”

The technicians from Apple, he said, are “bending over backward” to find that solution.

“They want the technology to work,” Muir said. “We are hoping to have an answer and solution by the end of March.”

That would just fine with SAD 27 administrators, who are concerned the unreliable connectivity is going to adversely affect upcoming state mandated online testing.

“We just want to be told something,” Guerrette said. “I can’t believe with the technology we have today, they can’t find out what is wrong with our technology.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.