School districts that have struggled to use early-generation videoconferencing equipment should take heart: Recent technological innovations and a new commitment by leading companies to use the same operating standard are finally bringing reliable, reasonably inexpensive, and fairly rapid videoconferencing to schools.

The most common uses are distance learning (particularly in subjects that might draw only a few students, such as advanced mathematics or Latin), continuing education for teachers, and district-wide meetings. The best of today’s systems include additional features that ease communication among partipants. Whiteboards, for example, allow students to share graphs, notes, and drawings; other systems have built-in calendars for scheduling follow-up conferences.

Because of the significant amount of data that is transmitted in any online meeting, videoconferencing can only be achieved by schools or districts with high-speed internet access. The author recommends installing the fastest wide-area network (WAN) you can afford—at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps).

The key decision you must make is whether to use Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) or Internet Protocol (IP) technology. ATM technology was designed specifically to handle voice, video, and data. As a result, videoconferencing products that use ATM have been around longer and generally are more reliable. First Virtual Corp. (http://www.fvc.com) and VTEL (http://www.vtel.com) make widely-used ATM systems.

IP technology has faced a bumpier road to acceptance but might be turning the corner now. This technology was developed solely for sharing data over the internet; thus, the addition of voice and video has been inconsistent. But a new agreement on an international standard for protocols has led to a commitment on the part of manufacturers to standardize, and this will solve the problem.

Schools already using Ethernet networks for other applications may find it easiest to adapt their system for full IP-based videoconferencing. Broadband Networks, Inc. (http://www.bnisolutions.com/Site/home.html) and PictureTel (http://www.picturetel.com) are popular IP system manufacturers.

Other leading videoconferencing equipment companies include General DataComm (http://www.gdc.com), Sony (http://www.sony.com), Tektronix (http://www.tek.com), US West (http://www.uswest.com), and VideoServer (http:// www.videoserver.com).