Tech Leadership

Everyone’s Going Wireless, So Why Aren’t We?

by Robert J. Gravina

The Peak Group survey in 2003 found more than 62 percent of schools nationwide are implementing wireless technology. Most universities offer it and even a few cities provide it. It’s everywhere, including Starbucks.

So what has prevented school districts from embracing wireless technology?

One reason is confusion over what wireless is. Wireless carts have been used extensively in classrooms for more than a decade, but today we have cell phones, satellite access, personal digital assistants and other hand-held devices. Other reasons schools haven’t embraced the wireless revolution include security, manageability and bandwidth problems that once seemed insurmountable. To compound this there are multiple wireless technologies and new ones being developed everyday. There’s 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g and the latest, 802.11n.

A Present Demand
Wireless isn’t just coming — it’s here and school districts are facing questions about how best to integrate a wireless solution into their network infrastructure. Many of the problems that prevented schools from adopting wireless technology have been addressed and there are several advantages to a wireless solution that is thoughtfully implemented.

Wireless may be part of the answer to overbooked computer labs. Wireless technology also may provide a possible cost savings in modernization projects and new school construction. It can provide teachers with access to their grades and folders outside of the classroom walls. Administrators have found this mobility a valuable tool for performing classroom observations and monitoring student discipline and attendance.

For these reasons and more, school districts’ information technology departments that haven’t already done so should begin planning and evaluating wireless options. Start the process by writing a business plan. Talk to other departments and school sites in the district to find out what needs may be addressed by a wireless system.

Most important is choosing a vendor that understands the complexity of educational needs. Each educational institution has a unique infrastructure and unique needs. Narrow down the field and then pilot at least three. Reputable vendors will lend their equipment to prospective clients and provide support for two to three weeks so that a thorough evaluation may be made. Little differences can mean big dollars later. Pay special attention to security, ease of management and scalability.

Security Measures
Security is probably the most important issue to consider. Ensure the system selected is tied to the current network authentication process. For most school districts this means either Active Directory (Microsoft) or eDirectory (Novell), thus allowing different roles for different levels of access.

Our district uses eDirectory for this project. We set up a radius server to handle the authorization process.

Management should be centralized, allowing the district’s system administrator to easily resolve problems without visiting sites. Be sure the management software is able to identify rogue access points and provides for denial of service.

When we instituted our first wireless rollout, we were told the design would allow for control from a central controller and that it was unnecessary to put a controller at each site. We discovered through trial and error that, while it can be tweaked to work this way with some additional software, to make it work properly requires a controller at each site. Some products build the controller into the access points, which solves this problem. There may be a significant cost difference so be careful all costs are included in the statement of work.

Scalability must be looked at from the end user’s point of view. While desktops and laptops will most likely be the first equipment on the wireless network, be prepared to add personal digital assistants, cell phones and other hand-held devices down the road.

Existing Hardware
It is unlikely all the legacy equipment will connect to the new wireless system. Compatibility is critical. It will affect costs and service.

Most laptops purchased today come standard with wireless compatibility. Look at the legacy equipment around the district and determine what will be needed to make these work with the new wireless system. Most legacy equipment probably uses 802.11b/g. Keep in mind this technology is still in its infancy and your expert will need to stay on top of current trends.

Previous problems with bandwidth have been addressed to some extent. Current access points do what is essentially load balancing, but it is not nearly yet cost effective enough to replace hardwired computer labs.
Wireless technology has made tremendous improvements in security, stability and accessibility. It is a tool that should be available to students and staff. If we plan carefully and consider the future, we will be able to meet this demand from our students and staff.

Robert Gravina is chief technology officer of the Poway Unified School District, 13626 Twin Peaks Road, Poway, CA 92064. E-mail: