Schools today are getting a real education in the benefits of wireless networks. And why wouldn’t they? This technology is helping bring more computers into the classroom and into the hands of students, as well as giving instructors the flexibility to take learning across campus, community, and the World Wide Web.
Using Radio Frequency (RF), today’s wireless local area networks (LANs) have speeds of two, five, 11, and 24 Mbps; are as reliable as traditional wired LANs; and can be used virtually anywhere to access a school’s network, e-mail, or the Internet. The benefits are as numerous as its applications. “Most of the systems operate in the unlicensed frequency band – that would be the 900 megahertz ISM band, which stands for Industrial, Scientific, and Medical. The 2.4 gigahertz unlicensed band includes the Wi-Fi devices, point-to-point microwave, cordless phones, and the Bluetooth applications. And then the last frequency band that is specifically used for wireless application is the 5.8 gigahertz band. All of these are regulated under Part 15 of the FCC rules,” explains David D. Donohoe, vice president of engineering, Comsearch, Ashburn, VA.
Significant advances have been made in recent years. “With the technology gains made in wireless over the last two years, a tremendous upgrade in wireless’ capability, as well as the amount of security enablement for software and hardware detection, many of the objections to wireless have flat gone away. They just don’t hold water anymore,” says Doug Boswell, wireless solutions specialist, Education Sector, IBM Global Services, Houston.
Why Wireless? Why Not?
Educators and administrators are looking for ways to make computer technology accessible to all students, promote new ways of teaching and learning, as well as better prepare children and young adults for the high-tech world that awaits them after their school days are done. Balancing these goals with the constraints of overcrowded, portable, aging, and sometimes historic school buildings is a challenging prospect. According to Boswell, “Certainly when you talk about older schools, it’s very difficult to capture unused space that’s amendable to computerization.”
When Muskogee Public Schools in Muskogee, OK, uncovered some of these challenges with a 1930s, WPA-built facility, wireless technology was implemented building-wide. “It’s all block walls, so cabling that building is a bear. The wireless worked flawlessly. We mounted access points in the drop ceilings,” says Ron Chandler, director of technology, Muskogee Public Schools, Muskogee, OK. Rapid deployment and minimal construction are two benefits that make wireless systems that much more appealing for school facility managers.
Paired with laptop computers, wireless systems minimize the amount of space consumed by technology (turning student desktops into computer stations when necessary), as well as providing instructors and students with increased mobility. “One of the classrooms is a special ed classroom where the students work in small groups, so we had different types of desks and tables. The idea is that they move tables around and they rearrange furniture. It’s very difficult to do that if you’ve got computer cables everywhere,” explains Rick Musto, project director, LPA Inc., Irvine, CA, about one of the two prototype “classrooms of the future” in the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD).
Wireless technology can be a wonderful extension of the existing hard-wired system. “In a lot of places where you have the wired infrastructure and you put a mobile application or wireless application in, you’ve got a redundant network,” says Donohoe. “You can bet that wireless will cost half of what a wired solution will cost, [when] you consider all the elements.”
Employing access points or antennas and cabling from these to the network, a wireless system can be implemented in a number of applications, varying in scope and scale. In the simplest application, mobile carts containing wireless LAN equipment can be plugged into the classroom’s network connection, laptops can be removed from the cart, and each student can begin computing at the desktop. “The idea with the carts is that every class can share when it’s necessary so that you don’t have to have a computer for everybody in school,” says Boswell.
Classroom-wide or facility-wide wide wireless (usually wide area network) systems operate on the same principle, except that wireless access points are installed strategically throughout the area. Any device that is wirelessly enabled with 802.11 technology can access the network.
Before undergoing a $22.6 million capital improvement program at Loara High School, the AUHSD renovated two prototype classrooms of the future. “They have wireless laptops in the classrooms – one for each child,” explains Sarah Creighton, director of Education Services, McCarthy Building Cos., Newport Beach, CA. “We designed a custom cabinet that sits in the corner of the room that has pull-out shelves to house laptops. The cabinet is wired for power whenever the computers aren’t being used [they] are being charged,” adds AUHSD Director of Facilities and Planning Gordon Getchel.
Higher education institutions are exploring campus-wide wireless systems as a way to not only enable students technologically but also to distinguish themselves. “We were aware that many of the schools with whom we compete were already ahead of us in deploying wireless technology to some degree. We wanted to both meet that competition and get ahead of it by doing something on a fairly large scale,” says Carl Whitman, executive director, E-operations, American University, Washington, D.C. The system implemented at American University is known as a distributed antennae system, serving both the purpose of data transmission as well as cellular telephone communication. “All together we have about 700 antennas throughout the campus that tie back on each floor to a wiring closet where the RF distribution equipment from the vendor is located,” Whitman explains. The loss of revenue due to cell phone usage by incoming freshman was mitigated by partnering with a cellular provider and offering students a service package.
While total adoption of wireless is a long way off, smart schools are giving the technology an “A+.”
Jana J. Madsen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.
Take Some (Wire) Free Advice
If you’re considering wireless for your school(s), follow a few basic (but important) steps:
Find a company experienced in wireless implementation and engage them in a professional services contract.
Complete site surveys to identify “dead spots” in signal transmission, to assist in mapping the location(s) of antennas and/or access points, and to gauge the level of expense involved.
Bid out the system components.
Take into consideration the amount of interference possible.
Once installed, perform routine checks to ensure optimum system performance.