February 21, 2005
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Schools Deploy Wireless for Communication, Security

A couple years ago, the Southwest Allen County Schools in Fort Wayne, Ind., decided that a wireless LAN would be a great addition to bring Internet access to a few science labs in two elementary schools. Adding an 802.11b access point in the labs would be an easy way to extend Internet coverage to teachers and students, says Steve Reithmiller, the district's technology director.

But soon, the district realized it could do more with wireless. First, the district decided to implement wireless throughout the school, so students and teachers would have Internet access anywhere, and would not have to switch to a different computer when they left the science labs.

Then, the school realized that wireless networks could also support voice and other communications throughout the schools' campuses. It decided to support voice service so teachers, administrators, and custodians could have phone access anywhere, for communications with administrators and parents. For example, a teacher could call parents during outdoor activities or from their classrooms, so the students would still be monitored while teachers gained the ability to place calls during more parts of the day. One example, says Reithmiller, is that students could call parents who appeared to be late picking up their children to see where they are, rather than ask a student to go into the school office and ask a secretary to find the parent.

The cost of voice-over-wireless is significantly cheaper than providing cell phones, Reithmiller notes, and gives typically underpaid teachers a better sense of support by the district and a tool to do their jobs better.

In today's security-conscious school environment shaken by school shootings such as the incident a few years back at the Columbine school in Colorado and by an overall fear of terrorist attacks another wireless benefit is the ability to send messages among teachers and staff in case of emergencies or intrusions. That would let staff get alerts silently, rather than through the public-address system, so students would not be panicked. In the case of a hostage taking or shooting, teachers and staff could contact each other to report on student and staff status silently, rather than risking exposure when a cell phone rang, he adds.

Voice over wireless networks is a relatively new phenomenon, one that is gaining attention as organizations consider both wireless LANs and IP telephony. Because wireless LANs support IP telephony, deploying the two together is a natural pairing. Although voice-over-wireless systems are more sensitive to traffic congestion than wired networks, Reithmiller was confident that the school environment would not cause any overloads. That's because teachers and others are fairly spread out, so it's rare to have even two calls on the same access point, he says.

The district is now looking to expand its wireless network to cover its other schools, at a pace of about one per year, he says.

Got deployment experience and lessons to share? Let us know at news@it-wireless.com.


UPDATE
Florida Courts End Wireless Effort

In our June 21, 2004, edition, we reported in the efforts by the Ninth Circuit Judicial Court in Florida, a regional court system that covers two counties, to deploy wireless networks in its courtrooms, to allow the delivery of evidence and video testimony to judges, jurors, and attorneys.

After testing the technology this spring, the court system began deploying it in two courtrooms this summer and fall. However, the system has ended the effort, after unexpected interference in the main courthouse from an unknown source (suspected to be the deputy sheriffs' radio system) made the 802.11 service unworkable, notes John Byram, the project manager.

Instead, the courtrooms were hooked up to the evidence-presentation systems using fiber-optic cable, which Byram was able to install mainly in existing electrical conduits, achieving one goal of the wireless effort: not disfiguring the marble-and-wood courtrooms by drilling through walls and adding unsightly conduits.


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