Wi-Fi Keeps Mobile Classrooms Connected in North Carolina's Largest District

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is the largest district in North Carolina, with more than 113,000 students and 14,000 employees in 148 elementary, middle and high schools. Providing basic network connectivity and computing facilities for a sprawling urban school district of this size is a complex undertaking, but the task is even more difficult when there are a rapidly growing number of mobile classrooms to support.

CMS has more than 500 mobile classrooms at 75 schools, with the number of mobile facilities continually increasing to accommodate rapid growth in the district's student enrollment. To further complicate IT support for these mobile classrooms, many of the classrooms are truly mobile - moving to new locations on an annual basis to meet the enrollment fluctuations of different schools within the district.

Wi-Fi Network, Management Systems

The district's goal was to provide connectivity to all of its 540 mobile classrooms so that students who are in the mobile units have the same advantages as those in the school's main buildings. This has been a real challenge since the mobile units are moved around annually. However, the sheer number of mobile classrooms and their movement throughout the district makes it impossible to provide connectivity to these classrooms in a reliable and cost-effective manner using conventional wired technologies. That is why CMS recently turned to Wi-Fi WLAN technology to extend computing resources to more students, teachers and administrative staff, while simultaneously providing greater flexibility for the entire school system.

The CMS Wi-Fi network extends computing resources to the mobile classrooms using 250 Cisco Aironet Access Points at all 75 schools that feature mobile classrooms, as well as Wavelink Mobile Manager WLAN management software to run all aspects of the network. Wavelink Mobile Manager enables network administrators to deploy and manage the wireless network, simultaneously change configuration settings, perform updates to mobile devices, monitor performance for each access point, and maintain network health - all from one central location. In addition, Mobile Manager is easy to use and saves a lot of time for configuration set up. I can now do 10 to 20 firmware upgrades with Mobile Manager in the same time it took me to do one without it. So, the economy of scale is important, especially when you have 50 or more access points to configure in one school.

Beyond the Mobile Classrooms

In addition to extending computing resources to all of its mobile classrooms, CMS is using the Wi-Fi network to extend computing resources to older buildings that would otherwise require expensive retrofitting with wire-based technology. We currently have wireless access throughout one middle school and one high school. There are also some older district buildings where it would be too expensive to run cabling, so we use Wi-Fi instead. If we have a school that is due for major renovation in two years, it makes a lot of sense to use wireless instead of installing a lot of cables. When it comes time for the renovation, we can pull the wireless out and redeploy it much more easily and economically.

Many schools in the district also extend the flexibility of their computing resources with wireless mobile computer carts, better know as COWs (computers on wheels). Those wireless carts get a lot of use since each cart has 18 laptops and a wireless access point. They are used to set up a computer lab pretty much wherever one is needed in the district. A classroom that may have only one or two hardwired workstations can plug the access point from that cart into an Ethernet jack on the wall and provide computers for 18 more students. Some schools in the district have as many as 10 of these carts in use during the school year, with about a thousand wireless laptops and desktops in use throughout the entire school district last year; the numbers continue to grow.

Providing Essential Control

I leave Mobile Manager up on my workstation so that I have a quick visual check of how our district's network is doing. The control panel will tell me when an access point g'es down and where it's down, which is important since I use Mobile Manager's control panel to organize the district's wireless workload. In addition, each school has its own folder with all the associated access points. Mobile Manager has helped me troubleshoot some pesky WAN problems as well. The e-mail notification feature in Mobile Manager has been very helpful, because it lets us know when any of the WAN connection links are down. For example, I get an e-mail when we lose connectivity to several access points, which helps us uncover troublesome intermittent problems.

The WLAN implementation at CMS demonstrates how Wi-Fi access points and management software can help school districts extend computing resources to facilities that cannot be served by wire-based technologies due to mobility, building age, cost and other factors. Wi-Fi networks are an ideal solution for schools because of how flexible the technology is, and how cost-effective it is in terms of hard costs and support resources necessary to maintain the network.

- Duane Alles

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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