Wireless Network Gets A+ From Medicine Hat School District

One-hundred and fifty years ago, the Blackfoot tribe of the Northwest Territories communicated over long distances using drums. Today, the students of Alberta's Medicine Hat School District 76 still use the airwaves to communicate but, rather than drums, they use sophisticated wireless communications provided by Wi-LAN (Calgary, Alberta) to send messages, share data and connect to the wealth of information found on the Internet.

In early 1990, the district had the foresight to develop and begin implementing a formal technology plan. District administrators, staff members and Xerox Canada spent months developing the plan, talking with a variety of companies such as IBM, discussing their particular requirements and how best to meet them They identified nine areas in which technology would prove most beneficial, including classrooms, libraries, administration and maintenance.

Today, each classroom in every elementary school is equipped with a minimum of three to four computers, high schools have computer labs and classroom computers, and school libraries, administrative offices and maintenance facilities are also computer-equipped. The computers at each site are linked through a local area network (LAN) allowing students, faculty and other personnel to share data, training and e-mail.

In 1994, Doug Pudwell, district secretary and treasurer, was assigned the task of building a wide area network (WAN) to connect the various LANs and link the 1,500 computers in the school district. Around the same time, the Canadian government mandated that all Canadian schools be connected to the Internet by the end of 1996. "Our district needed to find a solution built on proven technology with readily available products -- a solution that was cost-effective and, most importantly, one that would be of immediate benefit to the students," said Pudwell.

Over the next 18 months, the district investigated a myriad of solutions, beginning with the fiber optic cable being installed by the city of Medicine Hat. Though fiber optics was an attractive alternative from a data throughput perspective, the $1 million price tag was prohibitive. Plus, the students would have had to wait four to five years for the city to complete its network.

ISDN also appeared to be a fine solution, but the district would have had to spend a one-time fee of $70,000 to install an ISDN line and pay $40,000 per year in annual service fees. "We thought that ISDN was the answer, since it was readily available," said Pudwell. "On closer inspection, the team determined that ISDN wouldn't give the district a good return on its technology investment. That's when we began looking very seriously at wireless and discovered that it met all our criteria."

Wireless Accommodates Terrain

The team evaluated wireless solutions from several vendors, finally selecting Wi-LAN after an onsite demonstration by the company. Wi-LAN began installing the network in June, 1996, using approximately 20 Wi-LAN Hopper Plus wireless bridges to connect a total of 17 schools, the School Board office, the maintenance building, three Alternate Learning Centers, Shortgrass Regional Library Services and two local businesses -- all spread over an area of approximately 50 square miles. While the majority of the Hopper Plus bridges operate in the 915MHz band, Wi-LAN added several 2.4GHz models operating at various frequencies to maximize throughput and prevent interference between the units.

Because the Medicine Hat district is hilly and is dissected by the South Saskatchewan river, Wi-LAN chose Alexandra Junior High School, the highest point in the district, as the center of the installation. Using a 2.4GHz Hopper Plus operating at medium frequency, Wi-LAN established a high-speed, point-to-point link between Alexandra and the district's Internet service provider to eliminate any possible performance bottleneck. Wi-LAN also used a 2.4GHz bridge to connect two schools separated by the river and not visible to each other.

"With throughput of 2Mbps, the wireless WAN gives us 10 times the throughput of ISDN at a fraction of the cost," said Pudwell. "The district will be able to pay for the network in less than two years, without a recurring annual service charge to consume our budget."

Wireless Enables Applications

Since the wireless WAN installation was finalized in September of 1996, it has provided tremendous benefits to District 76 of Medicine Hat. Every workstation in the wireless network can communicate with any server, as well as access the Internet quickly and easily. The possibilities for sharing information throughout the district are unlimited. In addition to obvious benefits such as e-mail for faculty and students, most of the time- and paper-intensive administrative processes such as purchasing, budgeting, and maintaining student records are now done online.

The district's purchasing department has eliminated paper purchase orders almost entirely with the implementation of its Royal Bank Purchasing Card Program, which enables one to purchase online without filling out purchase orders or writing checks. And, the wireless WAN provides the purchasing staff with direct access to all details of their purchases. Online purchasing alone is expected to save the school district between $30,000 to $60,000 annually.

Another area expected to yield significant savings is the Docutech Printing System. All of the district's documents are centralized on a file server and are accessible to faculty and other personnel via the wireless WAN. Using Docutech software from Xerox, faculty members can create their own books. Members of the faculty can access stored documents over the WAN, extract paragraphs, sections, charts or entire documents and combine them to create a book tailored to a particular subject or to meet a specific requirement. The turn-around for this type of project is 24 hours.

The Docutech Printing System is expected to reduce the amount of time that teachers and clerical staff spend on photocopying, saving approximately $170,000 per year. More importantly the system will help the faculty provide the students with more focused material. "We haven't done an official cost analysis since we installed the network, but it's clear that we are realizing substantial savings," said Pudwell.

Even the district maintenance department is online in Medicine Hat, where the ShockWare School Maintenance Work Order System runs over the wireless WAN. Maintenance requests are forwarded via e-mail to the facilities director. The director assigns the task to his team and notifies the requester via e-mail when the maintenance has been scheduled -- all without having to make a single phone call or fill out a paper form. And if solving the problem requires purchasing parts or machinery, the director can use his Royal Bank VISA Purchasing Card and record the details of the purchase online.

The list of programs that the wireless wide area network has enabled g'es on. Through the Educational Information Exchange (EIE), information on each student is stored electronically in GMT Student Information Records using McGraw Hill software. In the School Accounting/Budgeting Program, site-based accounting details are accessible over the WAN to every school throughout the province of Alberta using GMT School Access software. The Alberta Education department uses this data to calculate the funds required to support their student programs and, from this information, develops its annual budget.

Network administrators can service computers without having to go onsite by using PCAnywhere, from Symantec, a software program that gives administrators control of a remotely located PC over the WAN. The amount of time it takes to service a computer anywhere in the district has been reduced from hours to minutes.

Students Reap Greatest Benefit

Although operational improvements and their related cost savings are important, the benefits to the students are the most meaningful. Access to the Internet has opened up a new world of opportunity, with information at the student's fingertips. "It's too early to tell what effect this ready access to information will have on the students of Medicine Hat, but we believe that the Internet will help us to broaden our students' knowledge base, expose them to new ideas and, in general, expand their horizons," said Pudwell.

In addition to the Internet, the wireless network will provide all the schools in the district with access to the Distance Education Program. The Program features a rich curriculum developed in conjunction with five other school districts in Alberta. Through three Learning Centers made possible by the wireless network, students are able to enroll in classes to which they wouldn't normally have access.

Medicine Hat School District 76 is the first school district in all of Canada to enjoy the benefits of wireless networking. However, that may be changing as the word gets out about its many benefits. According to Pudwell, "These days I spend a lot of time talking to educators throughout Canada and the U.S. about Medicine Hat's wireless network."

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This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.