Slow Internet delivery could soon be history. Satellite and other links offer schools a high-speed alternative. Chris Johnston reports.
INTERNET users are impatient souls - most cannot wait for seconds, let alone minutes, to access a site. But as anyone who has ever surfed on a computer linked to a network knows, the greater the number of users, the slower the access - even on a "fast" ISDN line.
Quicker access demands greater bandwidth. Schools could install multiple ISDN lines if the cost were not prohibitive. But there is another technology that connects you to the Web and is fast and affordable - satellite. At least two services give schools fast access and deliver educational materials. So far, they require a telephone line to make the communication two-way.
Espresso Productions in London set out to deliver television-quality video, graphics, animation, audio and text via satellite to computers in two schools in early 1997 and, last year, won a grant from the European Space Agency to develop the service. Its managing director, Tony Bowden, says satellite is the ideal medium since it is available to every school in Britain and, crucially, has the bandwidth to deliver its productions.
A larger trial involving 200 primary schools in 15 authorities starts in February. As well as delivering video-enriched literacy, numeracy and science packages that resemble websites, the service will give schools high-speed Internet access and the capability to receive broadcast-quality video. It will run until the end of the year. Authorities wanting to be involved in the trial's second stage should contact Espresso.
The broadcast-quality video is a feature of the service that particularly appeals to pupils, says Tony Bowden. "All of the content is tightly focused on specific elements of the national curriculum. It can be used like a video. Each clip can be controlled on the screen and used by children working alone, in small groups or in whole-class teaching." There are also testing activities, a glossary and a list of relevant websites for pupils who want to explore a subject in more depth.
Tony Bowden views the service as the sort of lesson preparation teachers would normally do if they had the time. Espresso's website indicates what areas will be covered in future packages.
The company believes the number of multimedia computers and local area networks being installed by schools makes its service viable. "We are bridging the gap between the Internet and schools using a satellite link, which provides a high bandwidth delivery, and a standard return path (via telephone lines)," Bowden says. "It's a very pragmatic solution."
Espresso expects to launch commercially in September and will charge around pound;1.50 per pupil per term, a cost which Bowden hopes even the smallest primary school could afford.
The company is also planning to offer its services via fast cable modems and ADSL, a quicker form of ISDN being tested by BT. Later this year, Espresso hopes to test a satellite-based return path, which would eliminate the need for a phone line to send email or website requests.
Meanwhile, Hampshire firm Space Academy is offering a similar service, and has been contracted by the Depart-ment of Trade and Industry to develop a satellite Internet service for schools.
One aspect of the Space Academy service that is similar to Espresso is a monthly broadcast of a package of selected websites and other materials to primary schools for pound;59 a month. Simon Lovesey, the managing director, says most schools have been more interested in obtaining fast Internet access. The speed of the connection means a CD-Rom can be transmitted in less than 30 minutes, much faster than by ISDN. Mr Lovesey says his service costs about the same as installing and using an ISDN line for a year, but gives a school's network much faster Net access. The equipment costs pound;1,495, with an annual charge of pound;1,000 and a two-year minimum contract.
There is also a limit of 500Mb per month that you can download, but Lovesey says this is large enough for many schools, particularly as popular sites can be stored on the school's server for repeated access. Additional megabytes cost 19p, but a conventional modem can be used to access the Net if the limit has been reached.
About 20 schools, from a small Lake District primary to large inner London comprehensives, have signed up for the Space Academy service. There is added appeal for rural schools which can face lengthy waits or are not able to install an ISDN line.
Satellite is perhaps the ultimate form of wireless Net access, but some schools are staying just above the ground to get connected faster and cheaper than land-lines. Taunton School in Somerset last year installed a microwave link to its Internet service provider. Trevor Hill, head of science and physics, says the solution avoided the need to lay fibre-optic cables around a large site, gave high bandwidth and fast access and eliminated telephone charges to the internet service provider (ISP). This saving compensated for the pound;15,000 spent on the link.
The main receiver is on the school's tower, with another in the prep school and a third in the senior school building. The service provider paid for the antenna. The microwave link also connects computers in the school's science block to its internal network based in the main building some distance away. Should the link ever fail, the 1,000-pupil school can still access the Net through an ISDN line.
Hill says it was installed to expand capacity and take advantage of the free use that BT offers schools during the day. The 1,000-pupil boarding school could have used the microwave link to increase bandwidth, but its service provider would have charged more. "It means our entire Internet service provision is free of telephone charges," says Hill.
The only problem with the set-up came when the school's tower, where the main microwave antenna is located, was struck by lightning, but Hill says it was back online within 24 hours.
A sixth-form college in Manchester overcame a similar geographical problem with infra-red technology - the same beams that are emitted by remote controls. Xaverian College has 1,300 students and seven buildings, five of them listed, on either side of a busy road.
When it installed a new computer network late last year, a line-of-sight infra-red link was used to extend the network from one side of the campus across the road to the other. Webb Electronics, which installed the link, said it was the most cost-effective solution and best met the college's needs.
If price were not a consideration, such a link might have been made using a laser beam. An Israeli firm, Jolt, has adapted technology developed by its national army for covert cross-border communications to provide high-speed data links. The lasers are being used to provide Internet and other communications services in inner-city high-rise buildings in Japan, Australia and elsewhere.
Back on the ground, seven schools and colleges in Lancaster access the Net through EDNET, a high-speed wireless network run by Lancaster University. However, Lancaster Royal Grammar, Lancaster Girls Grammar, Lancaster and Morecambe and the Adult College, as well as Carnforth, Morecambe and Ripley St Thomas high schools, must share the bandwidth between them and the other institutions using the network.
Any educational institution or non-profit making organisation can join, providing they can pay the joining fee of pound;4,500 (which covers the cost of the access router, radio equipment and some of the infrastructure expenses) and the annual pound;450 charge.
Wireless networks have considerable appeal in education, not just because they avoid the need for sockets and wiring. Saltus Grammar School in Bermuda recently installed a wireless local area network developed by RadioLAN in California to give full access to students with laptops.
Researchers at the Centre for Wireless Information Network Studies in Worcester, Massachusetts, are working on a more sophisticated system that can transmit what a teacher writes on an electronic whiteboard or displays on a computer screen (including files) to students' laptops over a wireless local area network, and allow students not in the classroom to hear the teachers' voice.
Cables are not likely to disappear in a hurry but, just as telephones have been liberated from their shackles, computers could soon follow suit.
Espresso 0181 237 1200 www.espresso.co.uk
Space Academy, 01794 517 533 www.space-academy.co.uk