Middle School Supports eLearning with Cutting-edge WiFi

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The latest in wireless is 802.11n, a fast, multi-faceted proposed standard that is so new it hasn't garnered final approval as a standard.

But for Borel Middle School in San Mateo, CA, a 1,000-student public school in the San Francisco Bay area , a cutting-edge 802.11n network is providing fast, pervasive wireless across the campus for teachers and students. Best of all, it's all surprisingly affordable.

Although 802.11n isn't a standard yet, nearly all new wireless-enabled devices can run "draft" 802.11n, and a number of vendors are already selling access points and equipment around the pending standard. Access points for 802.11n usually step down to support earlier standards, so users with 802.11b and 802.11g devices aren't shut out.

Many factors contribute to determine the speed of a wireless connection, but compared to 802.11g, the current high-end standard, 802.11n can be several times faster at least and has a host of features that will help make wireless even more pervasive. 802.11n's potential speed is 248 Mbps, compared to 802.11g's 54 Mbps.

Borel Middle School is part of the San Mateo-Foster City School District. With just four IT technicians supporting 20-some schools, the district is definitely IT support-challenged. It is also facing budget uncertainties that will almost certainly include tough spending cuts, as California wrestles with a huge budget deficit. Given these constraints, Borel is fortunate to have Michael Moy, a retired HP telecom manager who volunteers at the school, assisting with IT projects such as the wireless network. Moy has helped install and continues to help manage Borel's wireless network.

Using portions of a federal magnet school grant, Borel, which is seeking International Baccalaureate accreditation, recently equipped each staff member with new Apple MacBooks. Students are using the wireless connections in class for things like computerized reading and math intervention programs, Internet research, and content creation. Borel has an existing 100 Mbps LAN throughout the school, with jacks in each classroom, but the wireless network enables portability and ease of access that would be impossible with wired connections.

In rolling out an 802.11n network in September--the first campus-wide wireless network at the school--Borel agreed to act as a beta tester for Ruckus ZoneFlex networking equipment.

The school has now begun testing Ruckus Wireless SmartMesh WiFi as well. The SmartMesh technology will provide WiFi coverage to a larger area without needing to install additional wiring, Moy said, giving the school more flexibility in growing the network.

The Borel campus--about a city block in size and consisting of buildings stacked down a small hillside--offered a special challenge because it is on a hillside. That means the wireless signals must pass though not only concrete and steel buildings, but pavement and the ground itself as the signal moves down or up the slope from building to building.

To cover Borel's 40 or so classrooms, plus a remote gym and locker room, Moy installed eight access points (APs). The total cost for the new network came in at less than $6,000--an exceptional price for what is essentially an enterprise-grade wireless network that will be current for years. "That's not an outrageous amount," Moy said. "It's not outside the reach of most schools."

A cheaper upfront option for the district would have been to purchase low-end consumer-grade access points, at perhaps $100 each. However, that solution would have called for many more APs, Moy pointed out, since range would be significantly less with lower-power equipment.. Also, each access point would need to be managed individually, calling for more IT support. Loading new software, for example, or rebooting all the APs, would involve handling each one. One of the biggest strengths of the Ruckus solution, Moy explained, is a central box Ruckus calls a Zone Director, which connects to a network server to configure and manage all the 802.11n Ruckus APs centrally through a Web browser interface.

Other key Ruckus features, Moy said, include an internal set of antennae in each AP that adjust automatically both coverage and signal power to compensate for interference or to cover more range if an adjacent AP loses power. The APs also support a technology called Power over Ethernet, eliminating the need for power to each AP.

Ruckus also supports other wireless standards, so a teacher or administrator with an 802.11b/g or earlier laptop can seamlessly use the network--in fact, can connect to the same AP at the same time as an 802.11n client, with each running at the maximum speed that standard can support.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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