Unwiring Big Apple Schools

By Gerry Blackwell

November 19, 2002

New York is going its own way with Wi-Fi networking, putting access points in every classroom.

Most schools that deploy or consider deploying wireless LAN technology, do it to extend high-speed Internet access to classrooms. Schools in New York City, though, are taking a slightly different approach.

The New York City Department of Education (NYCDE) began its wireless initiative, part of the much larger Project Connect, last year. By September 2002 it had installed wireless networks in 200 schools -- mainly using Aironet 350 series access points from Cisco Systems. It will install an additional 300 schools by September 2003.

The difference in NYC is that the schools already have wired Ethernet drops in the classrooms being equipped with Wi-Fi. The wireless networks were installed not to avoid pulling cable, but to provide maximum scalability and ensure that every student in the room could be connected to the Net at the same time.

"So if the Chancellor [the head of the department, Joel I. Klein,] decided to give wireless devices to every child in the fourth grade tomorrow," says NYCDE director of information technology Joe Eaione, "we won't have any performance problems."

How likely is it that will happen? Not very, perhaps, but Eaione points out that the computer population in the New York school system is exploding. At one point last year, 1,000 new computers were being turned on each week. There are already 150,000 for 1.2 million students, a ratio of about one to eight.

"We see that [ratio] decreasing and decreasing," Eaione says. "We're looking at using more and more wireless devices for instruction. It's one of our big pushes. The people who are giving funding want to see computers at the end of [network] drops. Despite the funding cuts, this is definitely still a priroity."

The department isn't just installing one access point for every five or six classrooms, as in most school deployments. It's installing an access point in every classroom. Each room is its own Wi-Fi microcell.

"We wanted to ensure maximum flexibility," says Eaione.

Eaione, who taught in the New York school system himself before taking over the IT department, and still teaches part-time at the university level, explains the department's philosophy of supporting high-tech teaching methods to the nth degree.

"We wanted the ability for someone to walk into a classroom and do a guest talk or a demonstration and be able to plug in [to a wired port] -- because they won't necessarily have a Wi-Fi card -- and the students can all be connected at the same time."

"We don't want teachers worrying about technology. If I'm the teacher, I want the technology to enhance me, not be an impediment. That's why we think we need both [wired and wireless connectivity]."

The goal is eventually to equip every classroom in every school in the city -- that's 60,000 to 70,000 rooms in over 1,200 schools. "Obviously it will take a little while to do," Eaione says. However, virtually every school in the system already has high-speed Internet access and most have wired Ethernet drops in at least some classrooms.

Capital for this massive project has come in large part from the federal government E-rate (Education Rate or Universal Service Fund for Schools and Libraries) program. The program in effect provides schools with deeply discounted prices on Internet and telecom services and computer equipment.

The level of E-rate discount is based on each school's participation in free and reduced-price lunch programs. The NYCDE has concentrated so far on schools in the "90-percent poverty" range which qualify for the highest E-rate discounts. In other words, the poorest schools in the city are getting wireless classroom networks first -- a nice reversal of the usual form.

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