Syracuse City Schools Get Expansive WLAN

By Naomi Graychase

April 11, 2005

The rags-to-riches story of a school system that has gone from a technological backwater to deploying a triple-play (data, video and voice) over wireless for students and teachers.

The city of Syracuse, N.Y. is in the second of a three-phase plan to roll out a wired and wireless broadband network serving all 41 of the public school buildings within its city limits. The $80 million project, which will include 18,000 network drops and up to 300 Cisco Access Points, will bring high-speed Internet access to approximately 23,000 students and 2,000 faculty members.

Syracuse, which is home to roughly 700,000 residents, has contracted with Bluesocket to handle security, including access control, authentication, encryption and bandwidth management, and with IBM Global Services and Cisco to create the infrastructure.

"We were able to wholeheartedly embrace wireless because of the authentication abilities with Bluesocket," says Don Spaulding, director of Information Services and Technology for the City of Syracuse school system. "We tried to create a defense layer on the outside of the network. We have those measures in place as well."

The involvement of IBM and Bluesocket is the result of a new alliance between the two companies, which announced today that they will be working together to introduce an approach to large-scale, heterogeneous, wireless LAN environments which integrate multiple equipment providers and where centralized configuration, radio-frequency management and intrusion detection are vital.

Bluesocket also provides secure Internet access at two other school districts, the San Juan Unified School District in Carmichael, Calif., and the Coppell School District of Coppell, Texas.

The Syracuse network is currently active in 20 instructional buildings, with another six expected to be online by May 1. It will serve both administrative and instructional purposes. Grading systems, purchasing, payroll, and even the cafeterias have been connected. Enough bandwidth has been incorporated to allow for videoconferencing and video streaming, as well as other educational applications. Wi-Fi-enabled laptops have been deployed in classrooms to give students hands-on access to the broadband wireless network, including access to digital video programs offered direct-to-the-classroom by a local public TV station. Voice over IP (VoIP) is also being deployed.

Syracuse is not the first municipality to unveil a large, public Wi-Fi system in schools or otherwise, but Spaulding says planners there did not look to any one specific city for guidance as they mapped out their plan.

"I think in a lot of ways we've taken from instances where we felt things worked well," says Spaulding. "We knew what we wanted to do in our classrooms and what we wanted our kids and teachers to be doing. There are many ideas that we do borrow, but also many things we went and did on our own. We didn't want to meet where people were at, we wanted to look ahead and get out there a little further."

The project required a lot of new construction. Because of the outdated electrical and structural aspects of the buildings involved, much of the $80 million budget was spent on building modifications. Everything from creating space for the servers and other equipment to providing adequate air conditioning and ventilation had to be done.

Funding for the project comes from an assortment of state and federal grants, including No Child Left Behind (NCLB) grants, reading and curricular-related grants, and a $3.6 million grant which will be spent on teacher training and development to help faculty and staff get the most out of their new equipment.

"We competitively secured money," says Spaulding. "For teacher access, for equipment, for everything. We are terming it here as 'a convergence of events.' A lot of different things have gone on that we've been able to coordinate and facilitate in a way that makes sense."

The city is also working closely with local collegiate powerhouse Syracuse University and with other local partners including hospitals, PBS stations and other entities that can be beneficial to the educational mission of the network.

The project leaders see it as expansive in its scope and thorough in its execution. The result will be a major change for students and educators in the Syracuse school district.

"I don't think anyone expected it would get off the ground," admits Spaulding. "A lot of people are surprised. We were a district that didn't really have anything, now all of a sudden you can get to a WAN with a significant amount of bandwidth. And we've implemented a lot of applications with this project: portable distance learning carts, a new e-mail system, active directory, all types of remote maintenance devices, many different types of VLANS to support the applications. We went from a limited network with limited connectivity to a state-of-the-art sophisticated network."

The entire project is expected to be completed sometime in January of 2007.



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