Plugging into the Information Age has become a matter so rich with options and possibilities–most of which are changing so rapidly–that it’s easy for even the most dedicated school technology champion to fall behind. Not to worry. A painless update is just moments away.

Familiar issues such as the preferred configuration of the Local Area Network (LAN) have given way to more complex considerations about basic connectivity.

Do your schools need a satellite-based system, infrared or radio-based wireless, fiber optic cable, or one of the several flavors being served up by a telecommunications company near you–from T1 to ISDN to ADSL telephone connections?

The answer ultimately depends on your own situation–geographic location, financial resources, technology vision, local topography. You’ll need to weigh all those variables and more as you breeze through this condensed guided tour of the array of available solutions. The first stop is a school system in a remote corner of the Southwestern United States, miles from the nearest decent telephone hookup.

Tucked away an hour and a half from the next closest town, the Young, Ariz., school system faces all the challenges of a remote rural area. With 26 miles of unpaved road leading north and another 30 miles of dirt stretching south, the district can barely get a decent phone connection. Yet its 85 students in grades K-12 now have affordable high-speed internet access, thanks to satellite provider Helius Inc. of Orem, Utah.

During Christmas vacation, the district installed a satellite dish on the roof of its main building, which catches a wireless internet transmission via satellite and pipes it down to a server in the building’s computer lab. The four remaining classroom buildings, all located on the same school campus, are connected to the server in the main building through category-5 cable.

Because of the district’s remote location, dial-up internet access was often spotty.

“We’re located at the end of the phone line grid, and sometimes we can’t even get a line outside of the building,” said Sue Wade, the district’s vocational agriculture instructor who doubles as its computer technician. “It would take anywhere from one to 20 minutes just to establish a connection. You’re trying to teach a class, and it would take you that long just to download two or three pages.”

Yet internet access was critical for a district in which the library’s most recent encyclopedias were published ten years ago. “A lot of stuff has happened since 1989,” Wade said. “Our kids need access to current information.”

A high-speed data line from a telecommunications carrier would have cost the school system a fortune in access charges to run to such an isolated area. “We looked into getting a T1 line, but the cost was prohibitive for a tiny little school like us,” Wade said.

Enter Helius and its satellite solution. Now the district’s students download web pages at speeds in excess of 400 kilobits per second (Kbps).

“The service is fabulous–I can’t say enough about it,” Wade said. “These folks [at Helius] have gone way past what I’d consider good service. They literally walked us through the set-up page by page on the phone for four hours.”

Satellite-based internet access

Dan Broadbent, vice president of marketing for Helius, said satellite-based internet access is ideal for schools located in isolated parts of the country. “If you can get a T1 line that fits into your budget, that might be the way to go,” Broadbent said. “But satellite is the perfect solution if you’re in a remote area.”

Satellite access fills a chasm between the slower speeds of dial-up access and the higher cost of high-speed lines, Broadbent said. “For schools that need more speed than modem access provides but don’t have high-speed lines available in their area, that’s when satellite wins,” he said.

Here’s how a satellite connection works: Requests for an internet site travel across your local area network (LAN) and are forwarded to your service provider via a standard land-based phone line. The response is routed to a Network Operations Center, where it is beamed up to a satellite and sent back down to your dish at download speeds between 400 Kbps and 1.5 Mbps. With today’s satellite coverage, service is available virtually everywhere in North America.

Helius’ solution consists of three pieces: hardware, software, and a monthly access fee. The hardware–a miniature satellite dish and adapter card–and internet access are supplied by business partner Hughes Network Systems Inc., maker of DirecPC. The dish costs about $300 and the monthly access charge starts at $130 for 30 simultaneous school users.

Helius provides the software to make the Hughes service work in a networked environment. It converts the signal to a format that can be read by Windows NT, Novell Netware, or Linux machines and also streamlines it for maximum throughput to each networked computer.

A base license for up to 30 users is $1,100 for schools, and an unlimited license costs $2,549. As many as 250 users can be logged on simultaneously while enjoying maximum bandwidth, Broadbent said.

Helius also has partnered with networking company JDL Technologies to offer a full satellite-based solution to schools. The service combines Helius’ satellite access with JDL’s network design and implementation. JDL provides an optional CyberLibrary caching system that lets you collect, maintain, and automatically refresh web sites on your local area network so they’re available any time at the speed of the local network.

One disadvantage to satellite service: The high-speed access is incoming only. Data are uploaded at slower speeds. But most schools don’t need a high-speed channel to send information, Broadbent said.

Wireless WANs

A trend that’s just beginning to emerge is the use of wireless technologies to connect multiple school buildings in a wide area network. According to Tom Crotty, president of Willowbrook, Ill.-based Wireless Information Networks, wireless point-to-point networks have become an attractive option because they’re faster than a T1 line and require no monthly fees.

Wireless point-to-point uses the license-free 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum radio band frequency to transmit data between two points up to six miles apart at speeds of two Mbps. Since the band is license-free, there are no traffic charges–and using wireless service also eliminates the need for costly cable trenching and installation, Crotty said.

Point-to-point transmission requires a line of sight to the receiver, so the technology is most effective in rural areas that are relatively flat and in districts where the buildings are fairly close together. The topography of your location and the proximity of your schools will determine whether you’ll need a simple roof antenna or a taller transmission tower.

Depending on your needs, solutions generally run about $5,000 to $7,000 per building, Crotty said–but that figure could easily pay for itself in a year with the money saved in leased-line charges.

The Daviess County, Ky., school system was a pioneer of the wireless WAN. In 1995, the district contracted with local wireless company Solectek Corp. to build wireless towers connecting 14 schools and two administrative buildings to its central office. Five remote schools were connected via 56K leased lines.

Susan Smith, technology coordinator for the district, estimates that Daviess has saved enough in line charges each year to pay the equivalent of four new teachers’ salaries. By 1999, the district had saved more than $226,000, she said: “I consider it a home run for our district.”

Smith said she also likes the fact that the district owns and controls the network. “When you’re leasing phone equipment, you don’t always have the ability to troubleshoot it yourself,” she said.

If you’re considering a wireless WAN, you must have a staff that is willing to take risks and is not afraid of heights, Smith said. Also, get your vendor to thoroughly explain installation and grounding procedures. “When you have to climb a 100-foot tower to fix a problem caused by water leakage or lightning, you don’t want to climb it often,” she said.

Crotty’s company has just finished a proposal for Consolidated High School District 230 of Illinois. The plan would connect three high schools to an administrative building via wireless point-to-point transmission. One of the schools and the administrative building would need a 10-foot mast atop their roofs; the other two schools would require a 50-foot tower.

“Be sure to get a comprehensive site survey if you’re thinking of going wireless,” Crotty said. Wireless Information Networks, for example, uses a hand-held global positioning unit to determine exact point-to-point rooftop distance and an analysis of topographical surveys to pinpoint a district’s precise needs.

Wireless LANs

As the cost of wireless continues to drop and the technology continues to improve, many schools are turning to wireless solutions for their local area networks as well. Wireless LANs typically consist of mobile computers that connect to a server through PC-MCIA cards that send and receive infrared or radio signals. Benefits include greater flexibility, because internet connections aren’t dependent on a cable hook-up, and quicker implementation of the network without disrupting classes.

Joan Kuperstein, a nationally recognized educational technology consultant based in Miami, said wireless LANs offer an ideal solution for districts facing costly infrastructure improvements as they try to wire their older buildings. Besides physical obstacles like a building’s layout or a brick wall, older buildings often harbor costly surprises, Kuperstein said.

“Asbestos is a big concern with many older schools,” she said. “Heaven only knows what they’ll find when they open their walls.”

As long as asbestos remains hidden away behind the walls of older buildings, it doesn’t have to be removed, she said–but as soon as a wall is opened and asbestos is discovered, the school is required by law to remove it. “Nobody wants to take that chance when they already know the outcome,” said Kuperstein.

Another case where a wireless LAN offers the perfect solution is the portable classroom. In school systems like Kuperstein’s Miami-Dade County, where the student population is greater than the available classroom space and enrollment is growing faster than new schools can be built, portable classrooms–often no more than trailers set up on school grounds–have become commonplace.

A wireless LAN lets students in portable classrooms receive the same access to technology as their peers in permanent classrooms, according to Jorge Garcia, principal of Natural Bridge Elementary School in Miami. Garcia is writing a proposal for an Annenberg Foundation grant in partnership with three other city schools to purchase a wireless laptop solution for use in the schools’ portable classrooms.

Mobile learning

Two years ago, Chicago’s Reed Elementary School was forced to give up its computer lab when its student population expanded. The lab was converted into classroom space, and school officials set out to find an alternative.

“We were looking for a solution that would bring the technology to the students, since the students couldn’t go to it,” said Sally Neese, director of technology for the district.

Reed found its solution in the form of a motorized mobile cart that carries 32 laptop computers and a wireless network that includes a printer and charger apparatus. The system, called MobiLAN I, was developed by Wireless Information Networks in conjunction with Mobile Design Corp. and the district.

Teachers can sign up for the cart whenever they have an activity planned in which they want to use the internet or other network resources. The cart comes into the classroom with them. At the end of the day, the MobiLAN system’s built-in charging system recharges the batteries of all 32 laptops simultaneously.

The system relies on Lucent Technology’s WaveLAN technology, which uses a 2.4 GHz radio frequency to send and receive data between machines. Radio transmission offers a big advantage over infrared systems, Crotty said, because it can travel through walls and ceilings. With infrared, you have to have a line of sight.

The laptops are equipped with a PC card that serves as the “antenna” for transmitting and receiving the radio signal. The machines communicate with a wireless bridge made by Lucent. The bridge, which is the only wired part of the network, is connected to a central file server through an Ethernet connection.

The range for communicating from the laptop to the bridge is 75-100 yards, or about four to six classrooms, Crotty said. Reed Elementary has six wireless bridges recessed in the ceiling and spread out across the school for a “full roaming” solution, meaning the students can connect to the internet from anywhere in the building.

“It’s been great for us because we’ve been able to break up students into any size groups and have them do their research,” Neese said. “We can have them access the internet wherever and whenever it can best fit into the curriculum. We can even take our entire school of teachers into the library and do staff development together on the wireless network.”

Cable Internet Access

Giving wireless a run for its money is the heavyweight cable industry. If industry watchers are right, cable soon could become the standard for accessing the internet in schools, thanks largely to an industry-wide initiative called “Cable’s High-Speed Education Connection.”

Launched in July 1996, the program pledges at least one free internet connection for each public school passed by cable in communities where cable internet service is provided. The deal includes a free cable modem for attaching a computer to the coaxial cable TV network and no monthly access charges.

This is particularly good news to schools because more than 80 percent of all districts already are wired for cable, and almost all new schools built today are being hardwired for cable. A 1998 study by the nonprofit group Cable in the Classroom shows that more individual classrooms are cable-ready than have phone lines for internet access.

What’s more, because the coaxial cable used by cable TV provides much greater bandwidth than telephone lines, a school’s existing cable infrastructure can be used to achieve extremely fast speeds on the web. Cable access provides download speeds of four-10 Mbps–more than twice as fast as a T1 line, and 50-100 times faster than a standard phone line.

“It’s so much faster than traditional access,” said Carol Vernon, public affairs director for Cable in the Classroom. “And in a classroom setting, it’s especially important that not a lot of time be spent waiting for web pages to download.”

Schools are beneficiaries

Why such largess from the cable industry? One reason is that cable vendors such as Time Warner and MediaOne want to attract large citywide contracts for their services, and programs that help schools demonstrate their civic commitment.

Cable companies also find themselves in competition with telecommunications companies offering various high-speed services to rapidly expanding geographic areas. As the competition heats up, schools are becoming the beneficiaries.

Boston Public Schools, for example, stands to win big from a franchise deal reached last year between the city and local cable company Cablevision Systems Corp.

With competition from another company looming, the city negotiated a 10-year extension of its franchise agreement with Cablevision. In return, Cablevision agreed to provide free cable modems and internet access to each of the city’s public schools and libraries.

A spokesman from Boston mayor Thomas Menino’s office said the deal marks a tenfold increase in transmission capacity over previous internet access for the city’s schools. The spokesman estimated the value of Cablevision’s donation to be several million dollars per year.

South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow and U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., meanwhile, helped broker a deal with Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) and two local cable companies to bring free cable internet access and filtering software to 115 of South Dakota’s public schools.

Several companies are even going above and beyond their basic pledge to provide a single connection in each school by offering to connect entire labs or providing teacher training for free or at cost, according to Liz Lazlo, director of public affairs for the National Cable Television Association (NCTA).

The El Paso, Texas, Independent School District is one example. Last year, as cable giant Time Warner Communications was looking to roll out its Road Runner high-speed internet service in the city’s residential homes, the company extended the service to the district for free.

Four of El Paso’s high schools now connect to the internet on 25 workstations they were given free by Time Warner. Each of the district’s other 77 schools was supplied with five free workstations.

“It’s lightning fast,” Pat Sullivan, executive technology director for the district, said of the cable access. “Just click and bam, everything is there.”

Duval County Schools

The Duval County, Fla., school system is another example of a successful partnership between a school district and a cable company. Because of a deal it negotiated with cable franchise MediaOne, Duval County schools can expect to save more than $900,000 a year on internet access, officials say.

In exchange for providing hub sites for MediaOne on school property, the district will get a high-speed network connecting more than 150 schools and administrative offices at no cost.

“We’ve crafted a pretty interesting situation,” said Scott Futrell, Duval County’s technology director. “It’s a good arrangement for both sides.”

The network will link every school and office building to the district’s hub via two-way T-1 lines, providing the district with a true routed backbone. The district will be connected to the internet through a 45 Mbps direct link to MediaOne. Once in place, the new network will transfer voice and video data up to 30 times faster than the old system did.

“Having that much bandwidth to each school, we could actually channel it to run voice as well,” Futrell said. “If someone were to make a school-to-school call, it would never have to leave the network. This will let us greatly reduce the communication costs for the district and open the possibilities for video transfer.”

The planned upgrade would have cost the district about $925,000 per year in leased line service charges for the T-1 lines, Futrell said, if not for the district’s deal with MediaOne.

In return for a high-speed network with free internet access, the district will let MediaOne construct 10 buildings on school sites. The buildings will serve as regional hubs through which the company can expand its broadband cable service throughout the community.

School board and community members had a few concerns about the hubs, but they were easily resolved.

“We wanted to make sure [the hubs] were placed in areas that wouldn’t hamper any further construction on school buildings,” Futrell said. Also, the structures housing the hubs will be limited to 1,200 square feet and will have to conform with existing school architecture.

Because cable companies must invest a significant amount of money to upgrade their existing infrastructure before they can supply internet access, service isn’t available in all parts of the country.

According to NCTA’s Lazlo, cable internet access was available in about 130 communities last year, and will be available in more than 700 communities by the end of this year. A full list of communities that have cable access can be found on the NCTA or Cable in the Classroom web sites (see Links at the end of this article).

Telco Internet Service

Finally, vying for your internet business are the telecommunications companies (telcos). The Telecommunications Act of 1996 amped up the competition by allowing telephone companies to deliver video programming and the cable companies to provide telephone service. When it comes to internet service, however, the $100 billion telephone industry may have a leg up on its cable competition.

It boils down to this: the cable guys are looking to upgrade the connection between your neighborhood schools and its base of operations with fiber optic cables. Fiber optic cables can handle two-way data transmission. It’s a massively expensive undertaking.

The telcos, meanwhile, want to keep using the plain old copper wire that carries your phone service. That’s where services like T1, ISDN and ADSL come in.

Top of the line: T1–A T1 connection, according to JDL Technology’s Ira Kolmaister, is “nirvana.” A T1 line, which runs over regular copper wires, gives you a dedicated, 24-hour high-speed pipe out the internet. And it’s super-speedy–a T1 line can achieve speeds of up to 1.54 Mbps. It’s the ultimate option for anyone, said Kolmaister: “It’s very easy to configure . . . there’s no surprises.”

But a T1 line is also very expensive. There are several charges involved, including an installation fee (normally around $1,000), a line fee, and your internet access fee.

The line charge–the fee you pay your telecommunications carrier–is distance-dependent. That means that your fees increase the farther away you are from the telco’s point of local presence.

Your internet access fees will probably run somewhere between $1,000-$2,500 a month. You may be able to do it for cheaper, but Kolmaister cautions against jumping at those $500 monthly deals. At that price, he says, “it’s buyer beware.”

ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network)–Instead of moving to a T1 right away, you might want to start with a slower but more affordable connection, like ISDN. Although ISDN has been around for some time, it never really caught on with K-12 schools, Kolmaister said. There are complicated configuration issues, and ISDN never saw a universal implementation. Plus, those little charges can add up.

An ISDN account involves many of the same charges T1 lines do, such as the leased-line fee, but it’s not distance-dependent, and the charges tend to be lower. An ISDN line starts around $40 a month, but most telcos will charge you a per-minute rate for usage as well.

In Maryland, for instance, commercial users pay $42 a month to lease the ISDN line, plus $.04 a minute. High-end users are looking at bills upwards of $400 a month, Kolmaister says. And, if you’re not careful, he warns, your telco might try to charge you for local voice calls–the kind that are usually free–made over your ISDN line.

Compared to other connectivity options, that’s a lot of money for the speed that you’re getting. Most school users will need to look at other options, such as JDL’s CyberLibrary, to maximize their connectivity time. Otherwise, Kolmaister said, the 128 Kbps (.128 Mbps) delivered by ISDN is “nowhere near sufficient” for school users.

ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line)–A speedier option–though one that the telco’s have been slow to get to K-12 schools–is ADSL.

The beginning of 1999 saw ADSL becoming more than just a blip on the connectivity radar. For starters, SBC Communications, the parent company of Southwestern Bell and Pacific Bell, announced the biggest roll-out of ADSL yet. Plus, major companies such as NBC, America Online, and the internet news service CNET announced their own plans to build portals for high-bandwidth surfing.

A digital subscriber line (DSL) provides fast connections over existing phone lines. With a DSL system, filters split up your existing phone line into three frequency channels. These channels can carry voice, video, or data.

A low-frequency band carries the voice for your telephone service. At the same time, data travels upstream (out to the internet) at rates up to 640 Kbps on another frequency. Data are pumped downstream–toward your computers–at speeds up to eight Mbps using the remaining bandwidth.

With Asynchronous DSL (ADSL), upstream and downstream speeds are different. Because most users are sending far less data upstream than they are pulling downstream, it makes sense to put your power where it’s most needed: downloading data from the internet, for example.

Kolmaister says that K-12 schools tend to use the internet asynchronously. By and large, students and teachers are requesting a great deal of information from the internet, but pumping out very little. You can cut down on expenses by paying only for what you need. “Why pay for this highway leaving your school building when you’re never on the outbound lane?” he asks.

Like a T1 line, ADSL gives users “always-on” high-speed access to campuswide networks and the internet. ADSL can achieve speeds more than 100 times faster than today’s fastest dial-up modems. Like ISDN, ADSL also allows users to make phone calls while they’re online–it’s a simultaneous voice, video and data network.

For the cost of an ISDN line–or less–and with speeds approaching that of a T1, Kolmaister says, ADSL really comes out on top. Here’s an example: Bell Atlantic’s “Infospeed” service offers three packages. The speediest gives you 7.1 Mbps (down) and 680 Kbps (up) for $110 per month. That price doesn’t include your DSL internet service, so you’ll need to check out the service providers in your area.

There are also providers who offer a package for both the line lease and the internet fees. Concentric.net, for example, offers comprehensive ADSL service as low as $150 per month (144 Kbps upload/160 Kbps download). The company charges $359 monthly for 1.5 Mbps/384 Kbps service.

But you might have to wait for DSL service in your area. Trials are being done throughout the country, generally backed by a research university. The University of Miami, BellSouth, and Lucent Technologies, for example, are doing trials with ADSL to allow students to participate in “virtual classrooms.” And SBC Communications Inc., the corporation that owns Southwestern Bell and Pacific Bell, announced in January a nationwide rollout of ADSL.

SBC intends to provide ADSL service from 526 central offices to 8.2 million residential and 1.3 million business customers by the end of 1999, the company said. That’s being called the most comprehensive rollout of any ADSL service in the nation. In California, Pacific Bell will almost triple its current deployment of ADSL, providing service for 70 percent of its customers by the end of the year and slashing costs, the company said.

SBC’s ADSL service is scheduled to reach Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arkansas by the end of 1999. Schools and businesses in Connecticut should begin seeing ADSL trials this year.

Until the company closes on its proposed buyout of Ameritech, the Great Lakes Bell will continue to offer ADSL service only in limited markets. Ameritech is running trials in Ann Arbor, Mich., and elsewhere.

The addition of ADSL to the offerings available from the telcos underscores the growing assortment of options school technology decision makers like you now enjoy–ranging from telephone connections to wireless to satellite systems.

And here’s the best news about connectivity today: No matter which solution is right for you, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that the access you’ll be able to provide your students, staff, and stakeholders will be unparalleled in the history of education.

Wireless Links:

Helius Inc.

http://www.helius.com

Hughes Network Systems Inc.

http://www.hns.com

Wireless Information Networks

http://www.win-mobilan.com

Daviess County Schools

http://www.daviess.k12.ky.us

Lucent Technologies’ WaveLAN page

http://www.wavelan.com

CABLE Links:

Cable in the Classroom

http://www.ciconline.com

National Cable Television Association

http://www.ncta.com

Time Warner Cable

http://www.pathfinder.com/corp/twcable/index.html

MediaOne

http://www.mediaone.net

El Paso Independent School District

http://www.elpaso.k12.tx.us

Duval County Schools

http://www2.duval.k12.fl.us

TELCO Links:

Pacific Bell

http://www.pacbell.com/home.html

The Telechoice Report on XDSL

http://www.xdsl.com

ADSL Forum

http://www.adsl.com

Bell Atlantic

http://www.bellatlantic/business/adsl

Concentric.net

http://www.concentric.net