For years, computer scientists have been trying to find a way to connect the latest wireless gadgets so they can interface with one another seamlessly. Now, supporters of the new “Bluetooth” technology believe it could be the answer for schools and businesses that want to streamline their technology.

Bluetooth, named after Harald Bluetooth the medieval Danish king who unified Denmark and Norway, uses radio waves to enable palm-top devices, laptops, and cell phones to “talk” to one another. Like its namesake, the technology aims to bring together the warring “factions” of technology under a unified banner.

According to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, the term Bluetooth refers to a “de facto standard, as well as a specification for … low-cost, short-range radio links between mobile PCs, mobile phones, and other portable devices.”

Radio technology is a far more economical alternative to installing telephones into mobile PCs, Bluetooth’s supporters claim. Why? The cost of installing a telephone in all laptops is too high, there are too many types of phones to choose from, and there is no universally accepted standard for cell phones around the world.

In a time when connectivity is becoming increasingly integral to education, wireless technology has become the “holy grail” for many school officials seeking the ultimate in portable, interactive devices. Bluetooth’s supporters say the technology soon could offer schools the following benefits:

  • Bluetooth will enable a laptop user to surf the internet without a cordless connection through a mobile phone, and without a telephone jack to plug into.

  • Documents will be instantly accessible to participants in meetings and conferences without any wired land connections.

  • Users will be able to connect their wireless headsets to their mobile phones, laptops, or any wired connection to keep their hands free in the car or at their desk.

  • Bluetooth will enable automatic synchronization of a user’s desktop, laptop, and mobile phone. For example, if an appointment is entered into a user’s laptop, the same entry automatically will show up on the user’s desktop computer as well.

Bluetooth technology will allow a cell phone to function in three ways, proponents say. At home, the phone will operate from a fixed line charge. When the user is traveling, it will operate with a cellular charge. When the cell phone comes within range of another Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, it will operate like a walkie-talkie (no phone charge at all).

According to Steve Parker, product line manager for new mobile platforms at 3Com Corp. and one of the foremost experts on Bluetooth technology, 30 percent of people right now have a cell phone, a Palm device, a laptop, or more than one of these products. If a person is carrying more than one of these products on their person, the devices will be able to “talk” to one another if they are Bluetooth-enabled.

This means that if a user is carrying a cell phone and a laptop, he or she can call up the internet with the cell phone, which then can wirelessly connect the user’s laptop through Bluetooth’s radio signals, assuming both devices are within range of one another. Potentially, this means no more plugging the cell phone into the laptop to get internet access.

Parker believes the technology will have a significant impact on education. “New technologies are often more readily adopted by the younger generation,” he said. He also noted that busy school administrators also stand to benefit.

Daryl Ann Borel, assistant superintendent for technology at Houston Independent School District, also sees the potential of Bluetooth-enabled technology for schools. “It will be useful not just during the school day, but also, in an urban school district like Houston, we need to take steps to bridge the digital divide any way we can. The issue here is connectivity,” she said.

Parker said that schools wishing to employ Bluetooth technology would have to install wireless access points in areas of the school where personal computing and the use of Palm Pilots and cell phones is allowed, such as the cafeteria, office, or computer lab. The wireless access points are about the size as a smoke detector and are wired to the network. Students, teachers, and administrators within range of one of the access points could connect directly to the internet wirelessly.

“With high-powered radio signals, the access point has a 100-meter radius in open air. But in a building or an office, with things like walls and cubicles blocking the way, we realistically expect the radius to be about 30 meters,” said Parker.

“What this means in terms of streamlining for schools and school administrators is that if they deploy these Bluetooth access points within their school environment, they can control the access of the people within that environment,” he added. “This way, the school administrators are in control of what services they provide and to whom.”

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), comprising leaders in the telecommunications, computing, and network industries, is driving development of the technology and bringing it to market. The group includes promoter companies 3Com, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, and Toshiba, as well as several “Adopter/Associate” member companies.

The Bluetooth SIG exists to promote the Bluetooth wireless technology, to ensure the interoperability of diverse qualified Bluetooth products, to handle relevant legal matters, and to drive the development of next-generation technology.

According to Parker, Ericsson has announced it will be shipping a cell phone with Bluetooth capability in the third quarter of this year, and a wave of products from other companies will be released toward the end of the year. Most analysts are saying that by the end of next year, all manners of devices will be rolled out with Bluetooth capability.

“Practically all manufacturers of electronic products are working on this,” Parker said.

Price will not be a deterrent to those interested in implementing Bluetooth, Parker said. “Today, the cost for the silicon in the chip is around $20 or $30, but we believe this will come down toward the first of the year to less than half of that. I expect the second generation to be in the $7 to $10 range. By the third generation, it may be down to $5,” he said.



Houston Independent School District