Magazine article Technology & Learning

Wireless Networks Come of Age

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Wireless Networks Come of Age

Article excerpt

Pulling cable may be history thanks to new developments in wireless networking. Here's how your school can tap in.

These days, the term wireless is becoming synonymous with the wireless connectivity available on cell phones and handheld devices. But there's another wireless--wireless networking. Schools have been exploring the possibilities of wireless networking for quite some time now because it solves some of the tricky problems inherent in school connectivity.

Wireless networking gives your school the benefits of traditional "wireline" LANs and WANs, including e-mail and Internet access, file and device sharing, as well as access to any library or administrative systems on the regular network. Added to this, wireless networks offer key benefits uniquely well suited to the school environment.

In older buildings where asbestos and other material hazards are an issue, wireless networking reduces the need to drill through walls to pull cable.

Wireless networks can be set up on an ad hoc basis in a variety of settings (multiuse rooms, auditoriums, portable classrooms), providing flexibility in instruction and bringing resources to students rather than students to resources.

In and out of the classroom, wireless connectivity makes it easier for students to send e-mail and mine the Web for resources on the fly--ideal for project-based learning.

For itinerant teachers who shuttle between classrooms or campuses--not to mention administrators on the move--wireless networking offers a way to stay connected from any point on the school compass.

Trends in computing point to increased mobility, with devices getting smaller and more powerful. Including wireless networking into your overall technology plan will position your district to take advantage of learning opportunities still to come.

How It Works

Just as a wired network uses various kinds of cabling to achieve connectivity, wireless networks operate on different wireless media, including microwaves, cellular systems, radio frequencies, and infrared light. Increasingly, radio frequency (RF) systems are becoming accepted as the way to go.

Your wireless network exists in conjunction with your wired Ethernet LAN. Desktop or portable computers fitted with network interface cards (also called adapter cards) interact with network data made available through a network access point (AP), which is plugged into the network hub or switch. Deploying several APs along a network creates interlocking cells for continuous network access, so mobile users can roam about without losing connectivity. A typical access point supports between 10 and 15 users. There are also software solutions for turning computers outfitted with wireless adapter cards into APs.

And therein lies the good news of wireless networking. It is not an alternative to the networks schools have spent considerable time and expense building in the last several years. Rather, it extends network reach and offers enhanced flexibility.

What's more, wireless networking is no longer a high-end solution that only well-endowed schools can take advantage of. Equipment prices are dropping, and the total cost of ownership is not absurdly higher than that of a wired network.

Emerging Standards

The 802.11 specifications are the networking standard established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to ensure interoperability among RF wireless networking devices. Almost all wireless networking components--access points, network interface cards, and the like--are 802.11 compliant; if they aren't, that should raise a huge red flag.

Built into the 802.11 wireless networking standards is something called wireless encryption protocol, offering one layer of protection so that schools can send and receive sensitive information knowing it will remain confidential.

While not exactly a competing standard, Bluetooth represents the collaborative efforts of industry heavyweights to make wireless connectivity among myriad devices a reality. …

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