Case Study: Franklin County District Goes Wireless
North Carolina's Franklin County School District faced a dilemma common to many schools. Teachers for the district's 7,500 students wanted to take better advantage of the Internet as an instructional tool and build more Web-based curricula. However, the district didn't have adequate bandwidth. While the district's three high schools connected to the Internet via expensive T1-leased phone lines, the 10 middle, elementary and technology/ science magnet schools relied on 64K lines. When more than four students tried to connect to the Internet, the system would slow to a crawl.
Adding more leased lines was not an option. Franklin County's WAN costs already were considerable since the state and local budgets for it were decreasing. The district was paying about $8,000 a month for WAN services administered by the state commerce department's IT services division, and the district could not afford the costs of additional leased phone lines. In addition, the district covers several communities and is served by two telephone companies. While one company serves 11 schools, the two schools served by the other company would have needed additional connections to gain access to the district network tree. These connections would have run $1,500 a month per school - a rate that was cost-prohibitive for the district.
Jim Leonard and Leamon Brantley, school district WAN/LAN engineers, investigated alternatives and developed a wireless network design. Based on the plan, Susan M. Leisy, director of media and technology, recommended that the district build its own network using fixed-wireless equipment from Proxim Corp. (formerly Western Multiplex Corp.) and Alvarion (formerly BreezeCOM). "Proxim's equipment allows us to have a high-speed, secure, reliable and lower-cost system. It has survived tornad'es and other severe weather conditions without a blip," says Leisy. After receiving approval, the district began moving forward with the wireless network in 2000. It accepted three bids from vendors based on a preliminary site survey. LinkMasters Inc. of Wilmington, N.C., was awarded the bid to prepare a detailed network plan, then won the bid to handle the construction.
The plan called for building 11 radio towers ranging in height from 80' to 180', which would allow the needed line-of-sight between the radio wave-based transmitters and receivers. After securing the necessary approvals, the school district spent $300,000 on the network, most of which went to the construction of the tower foundations, the towers themselves and four roof-mounted antennas. The district received $181,000 in E-Rate funding for the network.
The district installed six Proxim Tsunami 10Base T bridges to create three separate links, making up the backbone of the network. It then added point-to point radios at each school and at other areas in the district. "The campuses connect to the wireless WAN at 11 Mbps, 120 times faster than before, and traffic is consolidated on a 100 Mbps hub to the proxy server at the technology center," says Leisy. Franklin County still uses two T1s to connect from the server to the Internet.
Since turning on the network in December 2000, each school can easily support a 30-station computer lab. The wireless network also is creating connections of a different sort. Franklin County students are participating in virtual classrooms with students from other counties as well as other cities, states and countries. At the same time, the wireless network has allowed Franklin County to save 75 percent on monthly operating costs for telecommunication services. It eliminated $6,000 in monthly access fees and router rentals, which brought operating costs to about $2,000 a month. Leisy expects to recoup the cost of the network within three years of its launch. Another benefit is that the wireless network allows for more efficient use of her technology staff's time, because they can remotely conduct upgrades and repairs from the servers in the district's central office.
Leisy and her staff already are planning to expand the network. To accommodate the county's fast-growing population, the district is building a new elementary school that it expects to bring onto the network this summer. "No matter how big the pipe is, the demand expands," says Leisy.
This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.