Wireless LAN Readies Ohio District for the 21st Century

In the fall of 1990, the Sugarcreek Local School district in Bellbrook, Ohio, formed a strategic planning committee to set goals for the district to enter the 21st century. This committee challenged the school district with putting a computer lab in every school building and a computer in every classroom. At nearly the same time, the Ohio legislature mandated a statewide Education Management Information System (EMIS). EMIS requires the periodic downloading of school district census and financial information, as well as student and staff demographics, attendance, performance, and course information. Having computers in every building and connected through a network would certainly facilitate the gathering and compiling of this information. Networking every school building in the district to its own information server could also provide each classroom, teacher and student with access to the latest educational programs and data. Wire or Wireless? Armed with these requirements, the committee began the process of soliciting proposals and quotations. After bids in the $2 million range were received, the project stalled and was put on the shelf. Two years later a revised plan was implemented, calling for a two-phase approach to installing all the computers. The first phase consisted of putting a computer in each high school classroom and a 20-30 terminal lab in each of the four buildings. The budget for this phase was $125,000 with funding being available from the state and private and corporate donations. In the second phase the goal was fulfilled, with a PC in every classroom in the district and in each of the administration offices. Next came the question of networking these computers. How would they communicate with the other buildings? Several methods were considered. To set up and operate a T1 phone line with a speed of 1.54 Mbps would cost $20,000 for the first year with an annual recurring cost of about $10,000. To set up and operate a then-current-technology wireless system for the first year would cost about $40,000. This system would have a maximum distance of 2.5 miles, which would not be a problem for this application. However, a speed of only 64 Kbps would greatly handicap the usefulness of the network. C-SPEC Run, Run Spec, Run! C-SPEC (Dayton, Ohio), a local area company specializing in total network solutions, was called in to work on the concept in the fall of 1994. They had been working on a prototype wireless LAN, based on spread-spectrum radio wave technology, that was highly reliable, capable of ranges of up to 20 miles and could transmit at the faster speed of 2 Mbps. The Sugarcreek Local School District became the pilot project for C-SPEC to design, build and install their OverLAN Wireless Bridge/IP Router. One of the few stipulations the district called for was packetized information, which could be achieved with AppleTalk, Novell or an Intel ProShare card. According to Rick Smith, the district's technology coordinator, this system has been in place, running almost flawlessly, for a year and a half now. It currently connects all four buildings in the district and a new high school now under construction will be included in the network. The cost to set up and operate this wireless system for the first year was just under $16,000 and there is no recurring annual cost. Multimedia Over Airwaves In the fall of 1996, when the new high school opens, the network will tie together 650 computers on six servers. Current capabilities of this network include multimedia and videoconferencing, in addition to providing the flow of information to and from the classrooms, building offices and central offices. This system is used by the administration to access the various files needed in compiling the EMIS reports. Students using classroom terminals can access information from the Greene County Public Library through a network connection to the T1 line that provides the link to MVECA. Plus, the Greene County Public Library has applied for a grant from the state to tie its Bellbrook branch directly into the school's network with an OverLAN Wireless Bridge/IP Router. Future plans include Internet access; educational programs and data available to every classroom could also be available to any person who has access to the Internet. Students would be able to access their own lessons, get special tutoring, or participate in individual study programs from home.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.