The final approval of a new wireless standard called 802.11g earlier this month should open the door for further adoption of wireless networks in schools by providing the power to transmit data up to five times faster than had previously been allowed under earlier standards, industry analysts say.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a technology standard-setting body, approved the upgrade June 12, saying the technology—which increases the speed of current 802.11b networks to 54 Mbps (megabits per second) from 11 Mbps—would give existing wireless infrastructures the power to serve up to five times more users than they do in their current capacity.

In the days following 802.11g’s approval, high-tech companies from Hewlett-Packard to Texas Instruments publicly announced new solutions designed around the high-speed standard, which should pave the way for schools and other organizations to transmit multimedia—including video and MPEG files—across wireless networks, a feat that proved difficult under 802.11b’s limitations.

“The official release of the ‘g’ standard allows us to capitalize on our investment in ‘b’ wireless devices, while gathering the necessary capacity to deliver bandwidth-intensive instructional resources more appropriately,” said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology services at the Plano Independent School District in Texas.

Another 54 Mbps standard, called 802.11a, already existed but was not compatible with .11b devices because it used a different frequency. The .11a standard also has significantly less range and requires the installation of more access points to be successful.

Thanks to its increased reach and wide availability, .11b has emerged as the de facto standard in wireless technology. New 802.11g components will be backwards-compatible with existing .11b devices, so schools and other organizations will not have to replace the infrastructures they already have in place to take advantage of the upgrade.

Analysts say they expect the approval of 802.11g will spark increased interest among educators, many of whom have been weighing the possibility of wireless for some time.

“802.11b already has people excited, but I think 802.11g will whip them into a frenzy,” said Keith Waryas, research manger for wireless business network services at industry analysis firm IDC, which predicts 23 percent of wireless equipment sold this year and 53 percent sold next year will use .11g technology.

In combination with the hard-wired infrastructures many schools already have in place, Waryas said the evolution of the 802.11 standard should give schools the ability to augment and enhance their networks for better effect.

“Schools probably will find a lot of value adding wireless components to their existing networks,” he added. “Once you increase the bandwidth, you begin to find that you can do things you’ve never been able to do before.”

Although the full potential of the .11g standard won’t be felt immediately, it will become increasingly clear as schools begin to use more robust, bandwidth-hungry applications—such as video and voice over wireless internet protocol (IP), Waryas said.

Still, as schools struggle to make do with sharply limited resources in light of state budget crises, some educators contend it will be a while before wireless networks move any further up on the technology agenda.

“We are not yet investing in wireless technologies because of the cost in an extremely tight budget era,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Unified School District in California.

Liebman praised the notion of a faster, stronger wireless alternative, but he said many schools lack the money to consider such innovations now. “It would not be politically feasible to lay off employees, reduce student programs, and expend monies for a conversion to wireless technology,” he said. “Unfortunately, I believe that [we are] not alone among school districts.”

However, if schools can scrape together enough funds to begin building wireless networks, IDC’s Waryas suggests a small investment now could translate into huge savings later.

Unlike hard-wired networks, where the costs of laying cable alone can put substantial strain on school budgets, the cost of integrating wireless solutions into existing networks is relatively cheap, Waryas explains. Wireless access points, which even at the high end can be purchased for less than $1,000 apiece, are far less expensive than the costs associated with running cable from room to room.

“It’s an unbelievably cheap way to set up a network,” Waryas said. “You don’t have to lay a lot of fiber to do it. It’s great for schools on extremely limited budgets.”

Security and reliability are among the other issues keeping schools from adopting wireless technologies. Some educators experimenting with wireless have warned that although the lure of ubiquitous computing is tempting, wireless networks generally are more vulnerable to cyber attacks than their hard-wired counterparts because information is transmitted through the air as opposed to across wires.

Even in Plano, where school officials plan to take advantage of new .11g components, Hirsch said hard-wired networks have their advantages.

“A … hard-wired infrastructure is, of course, still required,” he said. “We plan to continue to provide hard-wired capability to each classroom in addition to wireless access points to provide reliable, high-capacity points of delivery in schools—something wireless will continue to lag behind on.”

Links:

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
http://www.ieee.org/portal/index.jsp

IDC
http://www.idcresearch.com