This debate sprang forth from the recent International Symposium in Baltimore, MD:

"Urban Educational Facilities: Invention, Maintenance, and Renewal,"
sponsored by:

Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century
UEF-21) a chapter of of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International

The American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Education CAE

Program on Educational Building PEB
a division of  the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD).




Wired Versus Wireless
Technology in School Computer Networks
By Randall Fielding

Billions of dollars are being invested in wiring schools for desktop computer networks. Laptop computers and wireless networks offer an appealing alternative, promising greater access for the learner and reduced infrastructure. Glenn Meeks and Prakash Nair debate the issues. Glenn is President of Meeks Technology Group in Cary, North Carolina. Prakash Nair is President Elect of Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century (UEF-21), New York City.

Glenn Meeks                                                             Prakash Nair

Glenn, Prakash made presentations at the CEFPI and UEF/PEB/CAE conferences in Baltimore last month, putting forth the notion that schools would be better off investing in laptops and wireless networks rather than wiring classrooms for desktop computers. What is your opinion on this approach?

GM: I agree with Prakash 100% that in terms of mobility and access, laptops are great. But in terms of bang for your buck, I do not agree. Meeks Technology recently planned a high school in Allen, Texas, with a footprint of nearly 500,000 square feet. The bid for a hard-wired network came in at $1.5 million; the system included 5,600 data/power ports, spread throughout the building, with an electrical outlet and 100 MB per second network transmission capacity at each port. An alternative bid for a wireless system came in at $3.5 million; the system included 2 - 300 transmitting hubs, delivering 10 MB per second shared capacity at each node.
        The curriculum calls for students to present assignments using multi-media tools, with files often exceeding 15 MB - too large to work effectively with wireless technology. The wired solution offers ten times the capacity at less than one half the cost - an easy decision for Allen High School.

PN: I predict that, two years from now, this debate will look ridiculous because advances in technology will make wireless communications in the classroom the only sensible choice in most situations. Costs are changing rapidly. Whereas the Allen High School project was bid with PC transmitting cards that cost in the $350 to $500 range, a WaveLAN card, developed by Lucent Technologies, is now available for $179.

Prakash, your argument for laptops and wireless networks is particularly compelling for renovation projects, where the cost of opening walls and expanding the electrical power infrastructure are greatest. Do you have the same opinion for new construction?

PN: I would definitely propose that all new schools consider wireless first.  Getting into the actual technology solutions for a minute, let us take a hallway in an old school with eight classrooms in a double-loaded corridor. One option is to fully wire two of these classrooms and equip them each with 30 computers. Under this scenario, the remaining six classrooms will not be computer enabled.  In New York City, it would cost about $150,000 to bring electric and network cabling to each desk within these two classrooms. The cost of the computers is extra. With this solution, you would essentially have two very inflexible computer labs within every eight-room segment of the school.  On the plus side, you would have a very generous bandwidth for your heavy multi-media applications that must travel through the LAN. However, this arrangement will not necessarily speed up Internet communications, which will continue to trickle in at about 1.5 mbps.
       Assuming that this same corridor has four wireless hubs installed with overlapping coverage, any two unwired classrooms equipped with wireless cards can be simultaneously on the wireless LAN, each receiving 20 mbps of data.  Since the LAN itself is only used to communicate with the Internet or send messages to others on the network, this data-transfer rate or bandwidth is more than adequate.
       I believe that the economics for wireless computing works in new buildings as well. I am a proponent of wireless computing not simply because of the economics, but because it provides the least intrusive and most flexible method for bringing computers into classrooms and into school.  For example, a child working on a research assignment in the library could continue that research in the classroom, lunchroom or even in a shady corner of the courtyard.

"There is a tendency to look for solutions that will work in all cases, but there isnít one - what works in Raleigh, North Carolina will not likely work in New York City, Chicago, Detroit or Los Angles."
Glenn Meeks   |   December, 1999   |   next >