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Education Investments in Wireless Continue To Grow

Academic institutions in the United States are spending more than $5 billion annually on wireless hardware, software, and services. And, according to new research, that figure will climb to $6.8 billion by 2014.

According to a new report from Compass Intelligence, an IT consultancy and market research firm, this year alone, education institutions--both K-12 and higher ed--will spend $5.7 billion on wireless services and equipment, growing at a compound annual rate of 5.2 percent through 2014.

What's driving this growth?

It's largely owing to accelerating adoption of wireless classroom technologies, including digital readers, smart phones, and other handheld electronics. According to information released by Compass Intelligence: "Technology and mobility use for classroom instruction and interactive learning is becoming an exciting new trend in both K-12 and higher education, outside of traditional administrative and general communications use. College campuses are enticing students by providing students with devices such as e-readers, smart phones, and embedded mobile broadband devices with WiFi upon entry into the universities. Compass Intelligence also expects a high growth in free and licensed mobile applications to be made available for students to download on their mobile devices for use in the classroom and for learning."

Stephanie Atkinson, managing partner at Compass Intelligence, told us that the picture in K-12 right now is about the same as it was in higher education about five years ago, and it's picking up and spreading out, just as higher education did. "K-12 has historically been slower to upgrade and build out 802.11n networks, but the cost of the infrastructure is becoming very affordable and even a very affordable option for rural school districts," Atkinson said. "We are already starting to see adoption of wireless equipment and infrastructure pick up in K-12, and this is expected to continue very similar to what we saw in higher education five years ago. Adoption will first occur in building networks in the more common and gathering areas such as libraries, laboratories, and meeting rooms. Eventually, K-12 campuses will build out these networks across the campus. K-12 school districts are utilizing wireless networks to ramp up networks quickly, replace leased line and T-1 connections, enhance security, and retrofit older buildings and portable building where fixed line network construction is challenging."

Atkinson also told us that traditional wireless technologies will not be the only factor driving growth. 4G and mobile broadband will also have an impact on education, although right now, of course, adoption is hindered owing to limited availability.

"I have been talking with mostly the vendors to get their perspective and really the only activity I am seeing with 4G at this stage is with Sprint/Clearwire, primarily Sprint. Sprint is getting a great bit amount of interest in their 4G network capabilities primarily because in the cities where the network is already launched, schools are seeing 4G as a way to combine with mobile devices (handhelds, smart phones, iPods, e-readers, and other devices that have embedded wireless) with 4G to get the coverage, speed, and reliability needed to collaborate, use video, advance application use, and other applications to enhance the learning environment. They see this as a way for students to bring devices home and still have coverage, instead of just relying on the campus network."

She said mobile broadband is likely to affect academic institutions following the traditional pattern. "As with other technologies, most of the adoption will occur in Higher Education first, and then K-12 will follow suit."

She cited several advantages for 4G and mobile broadband over traditional wireless technologies that will fuel adoption, such as the ability to push expenses to a monthly schedule (as opposed to large, upfront expenses), improved security, wider coverage, and faster speeds in some cases. "The rollout of purpose-built devices and handheld devices along with educational applications will continue to require mobile broadband to effectively be used in a classroom or campus environment. Distance learning, interactive learning portals, district connectivity, and other applications are driving the need for wireless more than ever."

Atkinson added, however, that schools in rural areas are unlikely to see the same benefits from 4G or mobile broadband as their metropolitan counterparts. "Most of the impact from 4G/MBB will come in the larger cities, since that is how the vendors are rolling out WiMAX and 4G from a network perspective, and that is where the better coverage areas are today with even 3G. The rural areas are still struggling to get the bandwidth and speed the larger cities have, and this will continue to be an issue unless they roll out private WiFi, WiMAX, or LTE networks...."

As part of the research that went into the report, Compass interviewed about 50 education IT leaders and found that nearly a third of them--30.6 percent--reported increased spending on wireless data services this year compared with last year. The also reported that priorities for upcoming budgets will include data security, computer systems, and Web infrastructure.

A complete report is available through a subscription to Compass Intelligence's Education Vertical subscription service. It's being offered at a 25 percent discount through the end of the year. Further information, along with a free, downloadable report on technology in education, can be found here.

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