Wireless vs. Hard-Wired Network Use in Education

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Wireless local area networks (WLANs) are increasingly being used in education, with nearly two-thirds of institutions currently using WLANs in school districts. Its market share was about $500 million in the 2001-2002 school year and will be about $800 million for the 2002-2003 school year. A WLAN is defined as a local area network, not connected by cables or wires, which uses a wireless technology to carry information between the nodes of the network. WLANs depend on the number and configuration of access points for their functionality. Wireless access points are positioned so students can move desks around during classroom projects and so teachers can move from room to room. Also, learners can connect their computers anywhere on campus where there is proximity to an access point. The benefits of installing a WLAN in a school include:

  • Flexibility. In older buildings, re-wiring is not always an option due to the physical restraints of the building. Also, existing space may not allow for additional cabling.
  • Ease of use. Installing a WLAN requires less physical work than installing or adding to a LAN. WLANs have also increased communication and encouraged spontaneity.
  • Growth capability. WLANs can expand in size and functionality; access points can be added to and upgraded. WLANs can start off small and grow in size and complexity as needed.
  • Mobility. WLANs allow users to move freely around the room, to wherever access points are in operation.
  • Cost. For general use, a WLAN d'es not save much money. The cost of network interface cards increases from about $67 for a standard card to about $180 for a wireless type. However, the overall investment in WLAN is less expensive that retrofitting cables into old buildings.

Standards and Security

WLANs have been functioning in recent years using several standards. Recently two variations of standards are in use for implementing WLANs. IEEE 802.11b, known as Wi-Fi, is the more mature standard, though it has a relatively slow transmission speed. The major weakness of the Wi-Fi standard lies in its security, with only very basic protection of the data being transmitted.

LANs are functioning well in educational institutions. Wired networks for reliability and performance exceed the wireless network. Cabled networks operate at speeds well over 100 times faster than most wireless networks. More advances have been made to hard-wired networks than to wireless networks. However, LANs are more difficult to configure, especially when the need exists to drill through concrete walls to add network drops. Arguments for WLANs are most convincing when renovation is needed and the cost of construction is high. However, the cabled network operates at speeds much faster than the wireless network. Faster process-ing, more memory, better displays and some degree of standardization are all listed as advantages of LANs. So, it seems both wireless and hard-wired technologies have their place in the educational environment. New schools are considering wireless networks as their primary option, so computer access is not only in the classroom, but anywhere on the campus where access points can be placed. Though users often notice delays in network time as compared to a hard-wired LAN.

Case Western University in Cleveland will use 150 access points campuswide at a cost of less than $100,000. George Washington University is preparing to interweave all cell phones, PDAs, laptops and next-generation devices with wireless connections into the university network and Internet. Dartmouth University, which installed one of the first campuswide wired networks, is now also using what they call “a wireless overlay — wireless access.” The connection from the user to the wireless point is wireless, but the connection from the access point to the network backbone is wired. In addition, Michigan is awarding $2 million to each of 15 state school districts, beginning with five demonstration sites to implement wireless systems. Most campuses have some form of wireless access, while still many are considering a combination of wireless and hard-wired network access.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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