Tech Talk: Time for Wireless?

Sept. 1, 2002
Can schools function without wires?

Educators now have a more viable option for wireless local area networks (WLANs). The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has developed 802.11a, a specification that represents the next generation of enterprise-class wireless LANs. It will provide significantly higher speed.

Wireless vs. hard-wire

You might be asking, “Why wireless?” Because it's the future for many school districts, and it's within reach. Installing a wireless LAN system eliminates the need to pull cable through walls and buildings. It can provide schools with access to information anywhere in their buildings. Wireless can be more economical and require less maintenance than a hard-wired network. A wireless network can eliminate the need to provide five or six student data drops in each classroom, besides saving valuable space for desktop computers.

Wireless does have drawbacks. Video over wireless is still unreliable. Security of sensitive data in schools is much greater over a hard-wired network. In general, a hard-wired network can accommodate more simultaneous users than a wireless system.

The good and the bad

While a WLAN does provide flexibility and mobility, educators should be aware of the following issues. The 802.11a specification offers excellent support for bandwidth, but it equates to relatively shorter distance than its sister 802.11b. The consequence of this is the need for more access points. For example, a computer lab may need to support up to 25 users, all competing for the same access point, with each user sharing the total throughput. Another factor to keep in mind if you already have an 802.11b system is that 802.11a offers no provisions for interoperability between these two systems.

Tests indicate that this new specification is up to five times as fast as 802.11b.

For those thinking about a total wireless solution, be aware that although the means to accommodate a phone system over wireless is available, it may not be reliable.

The other issue is video. Even with 802.11a, the ability to send video over a wireless system will not approach the speed, resolution and distance of a hard-wired solution.

Infrastructure cost will depend primarily on the number of access points that are required. An access point is an antenna that transmits and receives signals over the airwaves and serves as the interface between the wired network and wireless LAN adapters. Access points can range from $300 to $1,000 per unit. Access points need to be configured carefully, assuming that you want to cover the entire building. Most wireless systems suggest that up to 64 users can utilize one access point. The most important step is to develop a site survey that will determine the number and location of access points required.

Next, consider the number of devices you want covered. This will provide you with the number of wireless network adapters or electronic circuitboards that will need to be installed in your computers or handheld devices.

Day is senior analyst at KBD Planning Group, Bloomington, Ind., a firm specialized in educational facilities and technology planning. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

C. William Day | Former Senior Analyst

Day is former senior analyst at KBD Planning Group, Young Harris, Ga., a firm specialized in educational facilities and technology planning.

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