Idaho School District's Wireless WAN Opens Intranet, Internet Potential

In January 1996, Blackfoot Public School District #55, in Blackfoot, Idaho, linked its 11 buildings and the district office into a wide area network (WAN) using OverLAN wireless technology by C-Spec Corp. (Dayton, Ohio).

One goal of the project was economical Internet access. But, according to Dr. Dave Case, the district director of technology, probably even more important was intranet capability--back and forth communications between all teachers, students and administrators in the 4,500--enrollment district.

The wireless WAN was the first major step. A second, to be completed next year, is the creation of local area networks (LANs) within each individual building. Economics dictated the selection of wireless technology for the district's wide area network, Case says. While wireless represented a larger expenditure up front than some other alternatives, its only recurring expense is the cost of a single T1 telephone line for Internet access. The long-term economic advantage was overwhelming in comparison with other kinds of systems, he notes.

The OverLAN wireless system cost about $77,000, including all components--towers, radios, antennas and cabling. And the performance? "It's been fantastic," Case says. In fact, the systems operation has exceeded its 10-mile range specification. The most distant network site from the base station is 13 miles away. And the two network sites that are farthest from each other--20 miles--have line-of-sight communication. "We thought at one point we were going to have to put in a repeater, but the technology is just beautiful," Case comments.

Doing Their Homework

The base station of the network has a 120-foot tower and the two farthest points from it, 13 miles to the south and 7 miles to the north, have 80-foot and 50-foot towers, respectively. The school district sits in a valley, surrounded mostly by small rolling hills.

"Network Solutions (Idaho Falls, Idaho) did an admirable job of getting on top of the buildings and looking at the topography to plan how the entire system would be laid out," Case says. The reseller also checked out the topography with an airplane flyover. Paul Wareing, project manager for Network Solutions, notes: "We did our homework."

In selecting the wireless WAN system, the district invited seven bids, most of them from resellers of wireless technology. "We had been looking at wireless technology for close to a year," Case says. He had become familiar with it as a result of conferences he had attended and "liked the speed of it," compared with frame relay systems. And he liked the economics of it in comparison both with frame relay and especially fiber-optic systems. "We concluded that wireless was the way to go."

Case had seen the C-Spec OverLAN Wireless Bridge/IP Router at a conference. "When Network Solutions proposed it, I went and saw a demonstration at another school system where Network Solutions had installed it. I was very impressed," he recalls.

The Blackfoot district's WAN operates on frequencies of both 915 MHz and 2.4 GHz, and utilizes 4 Mbps of aggregated bandwidth. No FCC licenses are required for its operation. The 11 schools served include elementary schools, a high school, a middle school serving seventh and eighth graders, a building for sixth graders only and a kindergarten center.

With the WAN in place, installation of local area networks in each building got under way. "So far, about a third of the district's buildings are networked internally," Case says. "That includes one building that's fully networked, with six computers and two printers in every classroom, and a second that's about three-fourths networked in the same way."

The high schools will have half a dozen computer labs, and at least one computer in every classroom. Even the kindergarten center is fully wired for a local area network. "We're completely wiring every classroom and every other room, including rooms used by specialists, psychologists, custodial employees and cooks. I'm not sure everyone will have a computer right away, but every room will have access to the network."

More to Come

The district expects to spend between $150,000 to $200,000 on additional computer equipment next year, most of it to be provided by Network Solutions. Each building will have at least one server, with some having two--one for educational and one for administrative applications.

"Our primary purpose is the education of our students, but we also get a great deal of administrative use from the system," Case says. E-mail has proved a valuable capability, both for students and their teachers and for administrators. "And," Case notes, "we will eventually have our own electronic bulletin board."

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This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.