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Cumbria schools speed up access

Surfing the Internet at speeds some 200 times faster than an ordinary modem is an everyday occurrence at more than 100 schools in Cumbria and Lancashire, but there is hardly a cable in sight.

All 123 secondaries and some 30 primaries are being linked to Britain's only wireless broadband schools network, part of Cumbria and Lancashire Education Online (Cleo).

The project has received pound;2.3 million from the Department for Education and Employment's regional broadband initiative, split equally between educational Web content and infrastructure.

Wireless was the only way to network the many isolated schools scattered across the two counties in an affordable way. To create links to the network "backbone" of microwave links and fibre optic cables, transmitters from Wavelength Digital are fixed to an outside wall and connected to the school's computer network.

Cleo technical expert Barry Forde said the transmitters can be used over distances of up to 15km, are cheap to run and are reliable. Health issues are not a concern as the units put out one-thirtieth the power of a mobile phone. They use a licence-exempt 2.4GHz frequency

Mr Forde said the 10 megabit links will allow schools, such as a remote rural primary with only 17 pupils, to video-conference with larger schools:

"This is a very valuable addition to the educational resources of a small school."

Chris Unsworth, Cleo project manager, said the solution is being used in urban areas such as Lancaster and Preston as well as the rural locations. There had been considerable interest from other broadband consortia looking for affordable ways of connecting schools.

The wireless transmitters will play an important role in connecting more schools to the high-speed network. Mr Unsworth hoped that about half of the 1,100 schools in the two counties would be linked by the end of next year.

Some experts have predicted that wireless could be a way of offering high-speed access to the millions of people who live in areas that will not be served by either cable networks or ADSL. However, the Government was forced to abandon a spectrum auction last year due to lack of interest from the commercial sector.

Cumbria and Lancashire Education Chris Johnston

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