Wireless Networking | News

Michigan District Rolls Out 802.11n To Support Mobile Learning Initiative

In an effort to support laptops, tablets, and handheld devices used by teachers and students, a small Michigan school district has rolled out a new 802.11n wireless network on all of its campuses. Holly Area School District deployed 175 high-end Aerohive Networks 320 access points for coverage at four elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, and a multi-use campus. That delivers wireless Internet access to 3,800 students, 300 teachers and staff.

The district, which has a propensity for Apple hardware, had two major goals going into its wireless network deployment. The primary one was to set up a digital learning environment that students and teachers could use "on the go." As the latest version of its technology plan stated, "The Holly Area School District emphasizes 21st Century Learning with how technology is positioned, operated, and supported for staff and students."

That includes issuing Apple laptops to teachers, but also allowing them to bring in their own devices, such as smart phones and iPads; Holly Area has also made about 100 iPads available for student use. District-wide, there are around 1,500 computing devices in use, among them MacBooks, iMacs, iPhones, iPads, and iPod touch devices. "Carts are checked out and moved around all the time," said Matt Mello, director of technology. "We want the devices on those carts to know where they are when they wake up, and we want this to happen transparently."

The second goal of going wireless in all buildings was to address the lack of interior cell reception. When Holly Area chose to replace district-issued Blackberry devices with Apple iPhone 4 handsets, the district had to come up with a way for users to make and receive calls inside. Mello said a bid from AT&T recommended 3G repeaters at the cost of nearly $100,000. "That didn't make sense. We needed a voice over WiFi alternative."

Those users can now make and receive phone calls via the Skype iPhone application. When outside the schools they use the normal cell signal. When they enter a building, they toggle on call forwarding to the Skype phone number and turn on the Skype application.

The district chose the Aerohive hardware in June 2010, began deployment in mid-summer, and finished it over several weeks. According to Mello, the project was "very easy!"

"I like how agile Aerohive is," said Mello. "I can provision consistent SSIDs across the district and yet have different user-specific profiles and security. There is a lot of flexibility enabled by that, and that was a major advantage over all the other WiFi manufacturers there are to choose from."

He added that the architectural model followed by Aerohive saved the district the expense of having to invest in a controller. In the Aerohive scheme, the access points are self-managing, though they can also be managed through HiveManager NMS, a centralized Web-based application. HiveManager allows the network administrator to do firmware upgrades, configuration updates, and network monitoring; however, the application isn't necessary for the access points to operate.

The district is also using Aerohive's GuestManager, a 1U rack-mountable appliance for managing accounts and authentication. This allows Holly Area to segment and secure temporary users from gaining access on the wireless network to resources available only to authorized district personnel.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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