A World Without Wires

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Whether helping to resurrect the Katrina-devastated South or upgrading educational access in districts far and wide, more affordable wireless mesh and voice networks are changing the learning environment across the nation.

THE WIRELESS BANDWAGON is rolling across Mississippi, picking up a fresh load of converts and turning calamity into opportunity. Traditional wired school networks, many of which unraveled during Hurricane Katrina, are giving way to advanced wireless mesh networks that frequently include voice-over-IP (VoIP) capabilities.

“The hurricanes provided an inflection point for many Southern school districts,” says Craig Plunkett, CEO of CEDX Corp. (www.cedx.com), a wireless integrator in East Northport, NY, that works closely with technology providers across the country. “When your existing infrastructure has been ripped apart, it’s an opportune time to wipe the slate clean and rethink your infrastructure strategy. Wireless is the first technology that comes to mind when you need to get classrooms online fast.”

Vendor funding is helping to drive the wireless cause in the region. Cisco Systems Inc. (www.cisco.com), for one, is donating about $40 million’s worth of wireless networking gear and related services over three years to help rebuild Gulf Coast schools. Mississippi schools and districts initially targeted include Forrest County Agricultural High, the Forrest County district, the Hattiesburg district, the Lamar County district, the Petal district, Moss Point High and the Moss Point district, and Harrison Central High and the Harrison County district, according to the Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s daily newspaper. Cisco Chairman John Morgridge, a longtime crusader for technology in education, personally kicked in $10 million to the initiative.

Though the impetus for the introduction of wireless networking in the Gulf was a unique set of circumstances, the conversion to wireless is certainly not exclusive to the region; indeed, it is taking root in school districts throughout the US. And though Cisco enjoys strong mindshare and market share in the wireless sector, the field is filled with a range of competitors, from established players like 3Com Corp. (www.3com.com) to savvy startups such as Firetide Inc. (www.firetide.com).

As wireless network infrastructure has evolved over the past decade to support even the most demanding broadband applications, including full-motion video and voice-related phone services, demand for its implementation continues to accelerate. Shipments of wireless LAN (WLAN) switches grew 61 percent in the second quarter of 2005 compared to first-quarter 2005, according to Gartner Inc. (www.gartner.com), a Stamford, CT, market research firm. Moreover, the number of WLAN hotspots will exceed 200,000 globally by 2008, up from 120,000 this year, predicts Gartner.

Eager adopters include John Savage, executive director of Technology for Newport News Public Schools in Virginia. During a typical school day, nearly 40,000 students and staff members communicate over a secure wireless network that Savage designed. The network, based on 3Com’s Wireless LAN Mobility System, provides approved users with rapid access to e-mail, streaming media, and other services.

Although Newport News is extremely satisfied with the wireless system, the school district isn’t ready to cut all ties to its traditional wired infrastructure. “It’s a matter of choosing the right tool for each job,” says Savage. “Wireless is the obvious choice in some situations, while hardwired networks remain the preferred option in others.”

Of course, not all classrooms are ready to cut the cord. Some schools, nervous about instant messaging and other digital distractions, have consciously limited their wireless service to libraries and public gathering areas. Other schools have resisted wireless deployments until the picture on emerging standards (such as WiMax) comes into focus.

Simple Math

Plummeting prices and maturing products, however, have made it difficult for schools to withstand jumping on the wireless bandwagon. In many scenarios, wireless switch suppliers are giving customers 10 to 15 percent discounts for orders exceeding $30,000; and those discounts go as high as 30 to 35 percent off list price for orders exceeding $200,000, according to Unstrung Insider (www.unstrung.com/insider), a newsletter for wireless network managers.

Prices are also falling for enterprise-grade access points, which connect wireless computers to a wired infrastructure. The typical list price for a wireless access point is now $700, compared to $840 last year. And street prices for these products have dropped to about $400 or less, Unstrung Insider estimates. “Wireless isn’t a commodity market,” says Plunkett. “But the falling price points pave the way for more and more schools to embrace Wi-Fi.”

Meshing It All Together

The two biggest trends in wireless school networks involve mesh systems and VoIP convergence. According to Cisco representatives, a mesh network allows wireless access points to communicate with one another without routing traffic through a central switch. This approach eliminates central failure points and sets the stage for self-healing networks: If one wireless access point goes dark, data is automatically diverted to the next nearest access point.

5 Steps to Wireless Security
• Leverage existing security mechanisms and credentials, such as a directory service or user authentication database.

•Ensure all client operating systems in the wireless network support the WPA or WPA2 standard.

•Ensure your vendor supports EAP in an effective manner.

•Select an authentication server that will work with the selected user credentials database and matching EAP types.

•Confirm that all access points and client devices to be used in the deployment are WPA-Enterprise or WPA2-Enterprise Wi-Fi Certified as applicable.

While most traditional WLANs are based on Wi-Fi standards (typically 802.11a, b, or g), wireless mesh networks can extend to broadband standards such as UltraWideband. As this story went to press, Cisco and other major wireless providers were developing specific strategies to catch up with mesh industry pioneers Motorola (which acquired MeshNetworks Inc. in 2004; www.motorola.com), Firetide Inc., Tropos Networks (www.tropos.com), and Strix Systems (www.strixsystems.com).

Firetide specifically targets K-12 schools with its wireless mesh systems that can blanket an entire campus. In addition to supporting educational applications, Firetide’s wireless connections can allow schools to monitor parking areas, public facilities, walkways, and other areas on a K-12 campus.

Despite their growing popularity—particularly in urban settings—mesh networks aren’t for everyone. Mesh routers can cost $2,000 or more, quite expensive compared to traditional wireless access points ($400 or less).

Answering the Call

Meanwhile, many schools are aggressively converging voice traffic onto their wireless infrastructures. Just ask North Point High School in Charles County, MD. In October, the school debuted a 21st-century learning environment, aimed at providing rich educational opportunities for both high school students and vocational “career tech” students.

In addition to rolling out wireless notebooks, North Point deployed wireless IP phones from Cisco to each classroom, enabling teachers to check voicemail, schedule teleconferences with parents, and even access 911 services in an emergency. The wireless IP network allows streaming video, video clips, and other multimedia to be delivered right to the desktop, enabling students and teachers to tap into virtually unlimited educational content. During fall 2005 classes, videoconferencing over the IP system was easily integrated into teachers’ lesson plans, according to North Point Principal Peter Cenenini.

North Point High isn’t alone. Roughly 31 percent of North American organizations—including schools—will deploy voice-over-wireless LANs by 2007, predicts Infonetics Research (www.infonetics.com) of Campbell, CA. Prices for wireless VoIP systems vary greatly, but generally run about $50,000 to $75,000 or more for a system that includes a dedicated server, voicemail software, and handsets, according to BuyerZone.com, a Web portal that helps businesses make informed buying decisions.

Fast ROI

School districts that embrace wireless VoIP have seen rapid returns on investment. Just ask administrators in Syracuse, NY, where a massive Wi-Fi rollout is expected to save $200,000 annually because the VoIP system will eliminate the need for expensive phone-line changes and recurring voicemail service charges.

The project, which spans 23,000 students and 2,000 faculty members, includes 300 Cisco access points, deployed by IBM Corp.’s (www.ibm.com) Global Services division. All of the school district’s 41 buildings will leverage the Wi-Fi system by spring 2006. Roughly 30 buildings are already online.

Once the wireless foundation is in place, Syracuse will build extensive services to run atop it. Wireless cameras will come online in 2007, allowing administrators to monitor school property over the IP network. And IP phones will be integrated with Microsoft Corp.’s (www.microsoft.com) Exchange Server, unifying voicemail and e-mail onto a single system.

Southern California’s El Monte Union High School District also is answering the call for wireless VoIP. Through a partnership with Foundry Networks Inc. (www.foundrynet.com) and Mitel (www.mitel.com), the district recently upgraded its infrastructure to support 10-Gigabit Ethernet, VoIP, and wireless networking. Foundry is supplying backbone switches and wireless access points, while Mitel is delivering VoIP services to more than 8,000 users on seven high school campuses.

“Over four years ago, we selected Foundry as our networking partner for implementing a districtwide Ethernet network,” recalls Garett McKay, director of Information Services Technology for El Monte Union High School District. “It was natural that we turned to Foundry again as we planned our network upgrade to address new and emerging requirements, including wireless access and converged voice-data networking.”

A mesh network allows wireless access points to communicate with one another without routing traffic through a central switch. This creates self-healing networks: If one wireless access point goes dark, data is automatically diverted to the next nearest access point.

When deploying wireless voice, schools should choose an infrastructure that supports SIP (session initiation protocol) trunking, which allows them to mix and match vendors; sufficient RF (radio frequency) coverage to ensure 802.11 wireless phones work in all designated areas; and load balancing among access points to ensure voice and data traffic is spread equally over the system. Schools should also keep a close eye on the 802.11e standard, which addresses quality of service for voice and other types of wireless traffic, according to Jeff Ridley, director of Product Marketing at ShoreTel (www.shoretel.com), an IP PBX supplier.

Additional Considerations

Many administrators are testing the wireless waters using Cisco’s four-step blueprint, “Connected Learning for Schools.” First, schools should evaluate how to provide connectivity across all physical locations. Such deployments provide economies of scale for pricing and productivity.

Second, Cisco and other vendors recommend deploying networked applications that manage such key functions as human resources, student identifications, asset tracking, and finance. Third, each IT project should focus first on teachers to ensure they have the proper tools for today’s classroom environments. And finally, once the wireless infrastructure and applications are in place, schools should develop customized, collaborative student-centric applications that stimulate a lifelong approach to learning.

Joseph C. Panettieri has covered Silicon Valley, business, and K-12 technology issues since 1992.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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