Wireless Grows Up

Wireless Grows Up

Thanks to 802.11b, educators are awash in wireless networking products. Is this a standard schools s

Let's face it, yesterday's question of wireless vs. wired suddenly seems outdated. In a world where you can log onto the Web while sipping a cup o' joe at your favorite coffee stop, remain connected to the campus network all day, and continue to surf or work while roaming from den to kitchen when at home is not a luxury anyone is looking to give up. The notion of untethered network access is great-wireless LANs are really beginning to make some waves.

All it takes is a wireless card for your notebook or hand-held computer and access points linked to the Internet or school LAN. Convenience like this could easily cause a sea change in how we all work, play and learn.

The cause of the building swells is 802.11b, a technical standard adopted in late 1999. Also known as Wi-Fi, the 802.11b standard uses radio waves to transmit data at speeds of up to 11 Megabits per second, exceeding Ethernet's 10 Mbps rate for LANs. Products will interoperate when they sport Wi-Fi certification from the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance. Even the issue of wireless LAN security-revealed as weak last April by university researchers-has been addressed.

Other WLAN standards exist, of course, and new ones are on the way. But, currently, 802.11b is deservedly riding high.

So, getting beyond the debate of whether wireless is worth it, this article reviews the explosion of Wi-Fi for networking, and how schools commonly implement it to enhance teaching, learning and daily operations. It also previews what new things are right around the corner. A succession of new, improved and largely incompatible WLAN standards are waiting. What will they mean for educators? Should a campus wait for these new products? Read on to find out all the answers you need about wireless.

Schools truly break the ties that bind when they add handhelds to their wireless LANs. Built-in or add-on wireless connectivity for a host of handheld computers is now an affordable option for many students and adults. And more gains are just around the corner. So, let's explore some of the new software and services-available today-that extend campus connectivity into the palm of one's hand. This is a very active area of interest for K-12 vendors.

Pervasive, wireless access to networked digital resources is surely in students' futures, and probably in administrators' as well. So let's take a look at the first waves lapping, gently for now, at our shores.

Wi-Fi Comes of Age

More than 230 products from 61 different companies had been certified as Wi-Fi compliant by the first week of January, according to a statement by WECA. Unit sales of WLAN products in 2001 were likely double that of the previous year, a Cahners In-Stat Group study revealed in December. And by one estimate, there were 10 million Wi-Fi devices and 4,000 public access points installed by the end of last year.

Wi-Fi, the pet name for 802.11b, certainly has arrived. You'll find it in airports, hotels, conference centers, libraries-and Starbucks coffee shops. Some folks are even using Wi-Fi to create ad hoc networks in their neighborhoods.

Already, 10 percent of K-12 schools nationwide use wireless networking, according to Market Data Retrieval's Technology in Education 2001 research report. And those numbers are bound to increase.

Decades-old school buildings resist wires in the walls, making 802.11b nearly the only affordable solution for networking in many cases. Wi-Fi also reaches portable classrooms and other outlying facilities, bringing them instantly into the campus digital community.

Moreover, the costs to go wireless continue to plummet. Hardware prices for Wi-Fi network devices declined by nearly half during the last 18 months, and could easily drop another 20 percent in the next 18 months, industry watchers say. Pure market competition is driving those prices down, as the number of WLAN vendors more than doubled just in the last year.

At the same time, Wi-Fi products have matured. They have better range and traffic capacity. Load balancing, where the system periodically checks and redistributes the traffic of oversubscribed access points, is more common now. Second-generation 802.11b products also offer 128-bit encryption along with the original 40-bit protocol.

In fact, a "fix" to the Wired Equivalent Privacy encryption algorithm was just approved in January after weaknesses came to light. Able to be applied to existing equipment, the fix deploys "fast-packet keying" to generate unique encryption keys for each data packet. While not foolproof, this should help protect wireless campus networks. (A new 802.11i standard, to debut later this year, is designed to stop more break-ins but few details are available yet.)

Wi-Fi vendors have begun to deliver additional tools and services as well. Among these are Virtual Private Network modules and other proprietary security enhancements. Running a VPN on top of a wireless LAN isn't necessarily expensive (VPN per-client costs may be as little as $25), but can be complicated.

Carts (and More) Roll into Classrooms

K-12 schools use wireless networks most often to bring additional computers into class or to extend the reach of their hard-wired LAN. In physical terms, this means a special cart full of iBooks or Windows notebooks gets rolled into a classroom, its access point is plugged into the campus LAN, and then everyone logs onto the Web or campus intranet to do their work. It's a highly flexible solution that's proven quite popular.

WLAN cart systems are offered by Apple Computer (iBook Wireless Mobile Lab), Compaq (Mobile Network Cart Solutions), Dell (TrueMobile) and plenty of other K-12 vendors (Earthwalk's NetWize System, for example). Prices generally range from $20,000 to $40,000 for a fully equipped wireless lab. Many schools have built their own carts as well.

Notably, while several hundred firms sell WLAN products, only four actually manufacture the hardware: Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com); Agere, a Lucent Technologies company (www.orinocowireless.com); Proxim (www.proxim.com); and Symbol Technologies (www.symbol.com). Thus, once you select the hardware, vendors can be chosen based on proximity, bottom-line pricing, or their experience with K-12 schools. WECA is a good place to start (see the WLAN Resources sidebar).

An ambitious vision for wireless connectivity comes from NetSchools Corp. (www.netschools.com). At its center is Orion, its proprietary network system that marries accountability to student achievement, assignments and assessments, aligning it all to local and state standards. WLAN-equipped notebooks best deliver Orion, so NetSchools offers the StarClassroom (cart), StarTeacher (all staff) and Constellation (all students) hardware configurations.

New WLAN Standards Muddy the Waters

Further ambitions exist for WLAN standards as well. Faster and more secure transmissions are needed, so various technical bodies have been working on a third generation of 802.11. Unfortunately, this has resulted in three different, and competing, standards (see chart).

The trio is 802.11a, 802.11h and HiperLAN2. Operating in the uncrowded 5GHz band, they won't be disturbed by cordless phones or microwaves, as happens with 802.11b in the 2.4 GHz band. And while the standards shakeout has yet to occur, many believe that the technical "extras" found in Europe's 802.11h will be added to the Americans' 802.11a, and the final unified standard called Wi-Fi5.

In a nutshell, 802.11a is five times faster than 802.11b as well as more secure, though its range is significantly less. Initial tests indicate that real-world data throughput for 802.11a is roughly half the claimed 54 Mbps, which is true for the slower 802.11b networks too. Such performance, however, (averaging 28 Mbps) will be able to handle streaming multimedia.

Vendors should begin to offer 802.11a WLAN products around mid-year. Access points and network cards will likely cost twice that of those for 802.11b. And some installations may need additional components, like Proxim's Controller unit for their new Harmony line.

Most K-12 schools don't need that much capacity or speed right now, and would be wise to wait on Wi-Fi5. In the meantime, a scheme to double-clock 802.11b has created the 802.11g standard (see chart on left). Products aren't slated to debut for months, and there is little buzz so far. This stop-gap measure may prove too little, too late.

Also still dangling is Bluetooth, a nifty wireless standard originally designed to create "personal networks" encompassing an office or even a person on the move. So far, Bluetooth as shown little bite; and its lackluster products seem only to ask "why?"

Wi-Fi-Enabled Handhelds Cause More Than a Ripple

Fortunately, the soaring popularity of 802.11b has led many vendors to say "why not?" when it comes to developing new products.

The Linksys Group, for example, just debuted an Instant Wireless Gateway ($299), through which one can Wi-Fi data directly to an LCD projector or other VGA display. Still other vendors have brought forth Wi-Fi-enabled printers, USB devices and more.

Perhaps most exciting for K-12 teachers, students and staff, however, is how one can now link handheld computers via 802.11b to the campus LAN. This relatively simple extension-from laptop to palmtop-changes everything. After all, when wireless network access fits into a shirt pocket, people tend to reconsider both their habits and their needs.

The current crop of 802.11b products for handheld computers includes cards, sleds and slipcovers for Palm models, Handspring Visors or Compaq iPaqs, to name just a few. Thus, Wi-Fi-enabled staff and students may roam the campus yet remain productive and accessible via their PDA. And this is just a vanilla application.

Taking Wi-Fi to the next level in schools is Mindsurf Networks' elegant system involving iPaqs, access points, curriculum content, custom tools and more. Supplying one-to-one computing and instant dialogue with teachers or peers, this unique platform delivers lessons aligned to standards, tracks mastery and lets teachers assess students' comprehension in real time. Visit the firm's Web site (www.mindsurfnetworks.com) for a demo, white papers, etc.

A more playful learning system also utilizes 802.11b networking. For grades K-8, the Indigo@Hand program combines $50 Wi-Fi-enabled Cybiko handheld computers with curriculum content from LearningSoft Corp. (www.learningsoft.net). Notably, all curriculum materials feature the firm's Learningtrac adaptive technology, which tailors lessons to students' needs.

Terian Tyre, terian@cox.net, is special features editor and a freelance technology writer based in Oceanside, Calif.


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