Networks are now in the air

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
Les Watson examines the options for wireless networking and assesses what it can do for your school

Where does ICT sit in relation to the curriculum - outside, bolted on, or as a key part? We all know what the answer should be, but we also know that the technology so far has never been quite mature enough for us to embed it.

The Stevenson report some years ago suggested that ICT should be like electricity - always available, everywhere, and taken for granted. The National Grid for Learning assumes the same. With networks that rely on fixed cabling, however, the reality in most schools is timetabled access to a room full of computers.

Enter, then, wireless networks. These enable students to use their portable computer or handheld device anywhere on the school premises.

Applications might range from fieldwork groups investigating earthworm populations and entering data in real time into a shared database, to students checking the timetable for lesson locations at break in the corridor.

The refectory and school hall become learning locations that can make use of ICT. In fact, with careful deployment of wireless, every space in the school has the potential for computer use without the costs of fixed wiring. The key benefit is freedom. Users are free to roam within the wireless network and stay connected.

Wireless networking is not new and has been on show at BETT in previous years, but its utility has increased dramatically of late. Technical standards (called 802.11a and b) were quick to emerge for wireless networks and most suppliers offer equipment to these standards which now have the "Wi-Fi" badge of interoperability.

Wireless works by having one or more hubs connected to your network, receiving and transmitting radio signals to a wireless card in each computer. Until recently the bandwidth has been estimated at 11 Mbits per second.

Apple was one of the first to supply a simple wireless solution with its AirPort product running at 11 Mbitss. The Apple AirPort system will be at BETT again this year. Although 11 Mbitss sounds sufficient, within the bandwidth available there is competition between connected computers (think of the slow service from a busy website), so performance can drop off quickly the more computers that are connected.

Performance is also adversely affected by distance with most systems having a range of around no more than 100 metres. Different types of building can also create interference, so if you are going to introduce it in a big way then have a survey done before you buy.

There is good news on bandwidth this year as 54 Mbitss wireless networking is now available and several suppliers will be showing this at BETT.

So what should you worry about? Well, there are many who doubt the security of wireless networks and you will need to reassure yourself that this is adequate for your purposes. Abandoning cable altogether may not be a good idea at present, but the wireless option does mean that you may be able to reduce the extent of any wiring in new projects. There is a very good guide on wireless networking standards, uses, and types at wirelesslan_technical.doc RM is introducing its 54Mbitss wireless offering in the form of a "class in a box" laptop trolley that houses up to 18 laptops with wireless cards, along with a 54Mbitss wireless access point for connection to the network. You simply wheel the trolley into the classroom, connect it to the network and the 18 laptops can be used on the network. The storage unit also charges the notebooks through a single socket and is lockable to prevent theft of machines. RM NoteBus 18 costs pound;999 + VAT (for a limited period only the new RM NoteBus 18 with a 54Mb wireless access point and 10 54Mb wireless cards costs pound;1,489, a saving of pound;100).

Dell has a similar mobile trolley solution that uses its Truemobile wireless network cards and computers (based on 802.11b) and also provides these machines for individual users wanting the option of wireless access.

HP will also have a wireless stand at BETT and be showing how it can deliver network services not just to laptop machines but also to its iPaq Personal Digital Assistant, and the new PC tablet. On the security side, HP has supplied to some key government organisations and is convinced that it has an industry strength solution.

Wireless is certainly worth a look this year and outside the school is likely to open up personal computing on the move with new developments such as BT's Openzone installing 400 touch-down points in public locations during 2003.

Les Watson is pro vice-chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University

Apple. BETT stand E34, F34. Tel: 020 8218 1000.

RM (stand D50, E50). Tel: 01235 826000.

HP (stand W40). Tel: 0118 916 0282. wirelessindex.html

Dell Computer Corporation (stand B44). BT (stand D40). Tel: 01344 860456.

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