As thousands of educators converge in Philadelphia June 27 for the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), many will get their first look at a fledgling concept that would allow students and faculty nationwide to access their institution’s wireless local area network, or WLAN, from any wireless access point at any other campus in the country.

Dubbed the Education First Network, the joint effort–sponsored by wireless technology providers Airpath Wireless Inc. and Bluesocket Inc., in association with the National Joint Powers Alliance (NJPA) and the Broadband Alliance–seeks to build the first ever coast-to-coast, inter-campus Wi-Fi network specifically for the education community.

Cell phone users might think of it as roaming–for your laptop.

The initiative “is an extension of how the telecommunication industry has worked for years,” said Jo Boettcher, chief operating officer for the Broadband Alliance, “providing the capability [to roam] across multiple networks, with … service to customers as they utilize other organizations’ infrastructures.”

The goal would be to give students and faculty at participating institutions the ability to log on to their own schools’ native network while visiting another campus or conducting research at another institution’s library, for example. The network would also look to connect member institutions, creating a central hub where authorized users could access information, share resources, and engage in cross-campus virtual learning.

Although wireless networks are rapidly being deployed within education, Boettcher said, the problem is that “all of this effort and cost is not being leveraged to its fullest potential.”

The organizers of Education First are hoping to change that.

“As schools and universities join the Education First Network, every member campus will become accessible to students, staff, and faculty via the network,” said Todd Myers, founder and chief executive officer of Airpath, whose Massachusetts-based company, along with fellow New England wireless security provider Bluesocket, has been tapped to manage access and security for the network.

Based on a concept called InterRoam, which allows IT technicians to control a myriad of Wi-Fi access points and security protocols remotely from one central location, Airpath has created SchoolRoam, a single interconnect that allows school IT staff “to dedicate scarce resources just once, effectively growing the footprint available to their students and faculty without having to dedicate additional resources and without changing existing deployed architecture,” explained Boettcher.

“As long as a K-12 school or higher-education institution is connected through the SchoolRoam portal, all students, faculty, and employees of that institution will have the same access when they are at another institution,” Boettcher said. That means all security policies, passwords, and authentication processes–including any installed web filters, firewalls, and pop-up blockers–also will travel with them.

“This ‘interconnect’ will allow seamless login and access to the internet, as well as to [users’] home school network applications, via a secured web environment,” said Boettcher.

All of this additional connectivity comes at a cost.

Organizers charge a one-time enrollment fee that varies according to the type of educational institution. The fee covers the cost of connecting the institution’s existing Wi-Fi infrastructure to the SchoolRoam portal. Colleges and universities are required to pay $3,500, while the tab for K-12 schools is $500 per institution. Public libraries and affiliated local education agencies are asked to pay $2,000 per facility, Boettcher said.

Member schools also will be asked to pay monthly connection fees to remain on the network. For individual K-12 schools, monthly network fees range from $250 per month for schools with less than 1,000 students to 18 cents per student, per month for schools with enrollments of 2,500 or more. Bulk or discounted pricing is also available for entire districts, based on the size of the installation base.

Monthly network fees for colleges and universities are steeper. Prices range from $850 per month for a postsecondary facility with less than 1,000 students to as much as 20 cents per student, per month for institutions with enrollments of 10,000 or more.

For schools that already have an existing Wi-Fi network, joining up requires little more than paying for enrollment. For schools that don’t have the necessary infrastructure in place, Boettcher said, the NJPA is negotiating with technology vendors to provide the necessary equipment at a discounted rate.

But schools can make that money back–and then some, said Boettcher.

Each member institution will receive roaming revenue from other commercial partners, with a portion of the funds dispersed directly back to the institution, she said. Here’s how it works: Roaming revenue will be acquired when subscribers to other wireless services, such as Verizon or Sprint, are out of range of their own Wi-Fi networks and must go through member educational institutions to get online. A special authentication process will allow these roaming customers to use their own login credentials to get internet access only.

“This type of program will help education institutions recoup the initial investment,” Boettcher said.

The success of the initiative largely depends on whether organizers can gain enough traction among schools nationwide. Signing on won’t be worth the cost if users only have access to their networks from a limited number of other campuses. Boettcher was unable to provide figures on participation to date before press time.

To spread the word about Education First, organizers are holding educational seminars, submitting articles to education journals, and recruiting industry leaders to introduce the benefits of the program to schools.

“The future of how education is being delivered is changing, and there is a need for students to be able to stay connected in both a wired and ‘unwired’ world,” said Boettcher. “The capabilities afforded education through the [Education First Network] will allow students and staff to leverage another educational institution’s investment in a wireless network by providing the capability to expand their learning experience while off their own school campus.”

Links:

National Joint Powers Alliance
http://www.ncscmn.org

Broadband Alliance
http://www.bballiance.net/home.htm

Airpath Wireless Inc.
http://www.airpath.com

Bluesocket Inc.
http://www.bluesocket.com