The X Files
Wireless-enabled extended internet—or X internet—technologies allow virtualcontrol of physical objects. A Colorado district explores whether the truth is out there.
IF X MARKS THE SPOT, educators are locating it anunexpected place: in what is known in business parlance asthe extended internet (or "X internet"), pervasive internet,ubiquitous internet, or embedded networking. The linchpin ofwhat is essentially an omnipresent cyberspace is wirelesstechnology—and forschools accustomed tothinking of wireless asjust a convenient wayto get online, these farreachingapplicationsof the technology cancome as a revelation.
What's behind the X internet, according to technology pundits, is the idea that in the next decade new wireless systems will connect not just people but objects. Already, global manufacturers such as Caterpillar, Wal-Mart, and the UK's Tesco are using wireless applications such as radio frequency identification to track products across their supply chains. But the X internet goes way beyond RFID, according to the technology consulting firm Forrester Research. "It's a mix of sensors, actuators, software, and services that, collectively, offer physical and time-specific information about objects," says a recent Forrester report. For example, say the report's authors, with the X internet you could remotely turn off a sprinkler or control building temperatures. Or, using technologies such as GPS—again, already in use at many large companies—the exact location of people, items, and products can be pinpointed accurately. Another possible application is the use of sensors of various types to monitor things like pressure and temperature.
K-12 institutions may not always have the deep pockets to invest in X internet technology, but administrators are well aware of its potential to revolutionize school facility and student management. The first step is to create a robust, farreaching wireless infrastructure. Marty Mushrush, systems administrator at Colorado's Adams County School District 50, is among the visionaries. "The uses of wireless are almost entirely up to us to imagine," he says. Adams County has invested in a wireless network that covers 32 buildings, 11,000 students, and more than 1,200 teachers and support staff. With more than 110 access points installed, another 148 slated to be added, and a remote monitoring and management system in place, the district is already well ahead of most schools in the wireless race. But for Mushrush, the technology's potential is more exciting, especially as the output and speed of wireless approach that of hardwired cable.
"Access points are the thing of the future," he says. "Eventually, wireless will cover doors, alarms, IDs—we've even thought of putting a few access points in the parking lot." Eventually, according to Mushrush, the goal is to set up a "cloud of wireless" with different channels, any of which users would be able to access because of the large bandwidth built into their computers.
"We're working at reducing the power that the radios use at the access points, so we're putting in twice as many," says Mark Hanson, Adams County's chief network engineer. "We're hoping to get a plug-in that will recognize when an access point falls off and boost the power of the other access points. Our biggest challenge with wireless is the school buildings, which are from the 1950s and '60s and are solid concrete. It's very difficult to get wireless signals through that."
Hanson adds that Adams County is currently razing one of its old middle schools and will replace it with a new elementary school in 2008. The new building is expected to have "a more modern wireless environment," he says. "We will have the opportunity to make the wireless network part of the design of the building rather than an afterthought. In the new school, we can use some of the new technologies, since the network will already be put in. We can even use VoIP rather than wireless. We're looking at getting guest access without compromising security. A vendor, for example, can come in and use his laptop. The newer access points will take 802.11n."
Expected to be released in late 2008, 802.11n is the next generation of wireless technology, combining multiple antennas, improved encoding, and an optional doubling of spectrum to achieve speeds up to four times greater than that of the current 802.11g standard. Using the new technology, Adams County expects to upgrade older locations by strengthening areas of the buildings that have weak signals.
Invasion of Privacy?
None of these efforts was even remotely in the works when Mushrush joined the Adams County system about two years ago. "When I came, the network was already established," he says. "Then I attended a seminar on 802 technologies, and that led to some outside-the-box thinking." Now, he says, the school district is looking into a variety of applications, including smart cards. "What are the limits of what we can do? How much information can you glean from the smart card about that particular individual? If a child comes in with a fever, he or she can be stopped at the door and a nurse can take the child off to the side. So we nip disease in the bud. Or you can tell if the kids are out in the parking lot smoking."
"Eventually, wireless will cover doors, alarms, IDs—we've eventhought of putting a few access points in the parking lot." —Marty Mushrush, Adams County School District 50
Inevitably, the pervasive internet raises privacy concerns. But Mushrush argues that the relationship between parents and children differs from that between adults. "It's a matter of finding out what works within the realm of our freedoms," he says. "A parent gives the school the right to take care of the child and places trust in the school. The safety factor is big on our minds right now." He cites the possible uses of wireless technologies in building and personal security: "You can have sensors in the bathroom that will notify a teacher if there's smoke, for example. The teacher can go see what's going on rather than the whole school having to be evacuated. Or you can embed a chip in student ID badges so you know where students are in the school. On the one hand you're Big Brother, but on the other you can monitor the safety of the kids."
The cost of X internet technology can be daunting, however. According to Forrester analyst Ellen Daley, organizations should factor in the price of endpoints such as sensors, actuators, and RFID tags; installing networks such as Zig- Bee, Bluetooth, IP, or WiFi/WLAN; and the software required for management and monitoring. Thanks to the demographics of the district, all 23 schools in the Adams County system qualify for funding through the federal E-Rate program, which offers discounted telecom services. The discounts can be as high as 80 percent, says Mushrush. "We ended up getting business-class access points for the price of a regular one that you get at Best Buy. We buy 100 access points roughly every few years. But there are other creative ways to get financing. The more involved teachers and parents are, the more equipment you get. In a couple of schools, there was no wireless, but the superintendent pushed for it and paid out of his own budget."
Budget is one constraint; time is another. And time is what Adams County will need most in the future, expects Mushrush. "We need to find technology that will give us time for other projects and save us man-hours," he says. "Our challenge is to get the software now to manage all of this." Recently, the school invested in AirWave, a solution that enables IT organizations to manage wireless networks remotely. "It alerts us if any access point is down, helps us discover rogue access points, and allows real hard-core troubleshooting," Mushrush says. Next on the list is a module that balances access throughout the school buildings. But Mushrush cautions that you must put robust infrastructure in place before making a wish list for software—and to evaluate the software carefully before purchasing it. "In keeping up with technology, you have to decide if you want to be on the forefront or the bleeding edge," he says. "The bleeding edge can be dangerous sometimes."
Rama Ramaswami is a freelance writerbased in New York City.
This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.