Philadelphia schools reap Wi-Fi benefits

District spends US$40 million to wire schools and buy Wi-Fi gear

Just as the Philadelphia public schools are starting to reap the benefits of a US$40 million Wi-Fi project that puts wireless Internet access within reach of 170,000 students, an upgrade to new 802.11n technology is being contemplated for next fall.

The Wi-Fi deployment to all 268 Philadelphia schools, which was finished over the summer, is considered one of the largest Wi-Fi projects anywhere on the globe, according to Meru Networks, one of the vendors that has worked with Ayava on the project.

The wireless initiative started in early 2003. Updates, including faster 802.11n technology, were expected at the outset to occur every three to four years, subject to funding and technology advances, said Bob Westall, deputy CIO for the city's School District of Philadelphia.

Wi-Fi technology over the 802.11 a/b/g specifications has been instrumental in giving "functional 1 to 1" access of computing to all students, since it allows students to use laptop computers rotated from classroom to classroom on carts, he said.

In an e-mail, Westall called the solution a "powerful foundation of technology" that supports bandwidth intensive online curriculum, a curriculum management system, digital libraries and a parent-teacher collaboration portal.

A staff of 11,000 can also access operations and administrative applications. The applications include voice, data and video media, Meru officials said.

The district spent about US$40 million to wire the schools and buy Wi-Fi gear, Westall said, with about 75% of the cost subsidized by the federal E-Rate program.

Westall said the district plans to incorporate 802.11n technology during the first cycle of equipment replacement, which is expected to start next fall. He did not provide any other details on costs or a deployment schedule.

A Meru spokeswoman said that "potentially" the faster speed 802.11n technology could be installed by Meru in about 170 schools of a total of 268 over one to two years. Meru recently announced it had provisioned 90 of the schools as of last summer with 14,000 access points contained in 7,000 Meru Network Radio Switches.

That switch, the RS4000, features air traffic control technology that Meru said has been ideal for converged voice, data and video applications especially in areas with many users.

Meru officials said they were also able to use the technology to help prevent interference from nearby Wi-Fi signals emitted from equipment used by the city government for its massive municipal Wi-Fi deployment.

The project was originally started with Avaya working with Proxim Wireless Inc., which led to wiring of about 178 schools, but the district and Avaya determined that Meru's technology "would better adapt and scale to the district's needs," Westall said. Proxim could not be reached to comment.

When Meru started on the project about two years ago, 802.11n and even 802.11 draft N had not been developed as a specification, the Meru spokeswoman added.

Phil Belanger, an analyst at Novarum Inc., said Meru has been a strong leader in promoting draft N Wi-Fi technology. The Meru Radio Switch is innovative for providing higher bandwidth capacity in zones with many users, unlike many competitors, he added, making it a suitable implementation at the Philadelphia school district.

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