Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is seeking to provide free wireless broadband internet service to the homes of students and staff members, starting with a pilot system covering about five square miles that is scheduled to be operational by August 2007. If successful, the Milwaukee initiative would become one of the first such projects in the United States to bring high-speed broadband service to families and educators via a WiMAX system.

The program is part of a growing trend among school systems nationwide to bring internet service into the homes of all students and educators. Similar programs have mostly used dial-up service as a means of providing free internet access to students. But James Davis, MPS director of technology, said he sees WiMAX as the means to provide internet access to students from families too poor to afford even a phone line.

Davis told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that, without this kind of initiative, these students will fall further behind in competition for college entry and the work force. That, Davis said, will increase the “digital divide.”

Also, a low-bandwidth solution such as dial-up does not usually permit students and teachers to take advantage of the internet’s full potential as a teaching and learning tool–enabling the use of graphics, video, sound, and other programs too large to be downloaded efficiently via a dial-up connection.

Milwaukee plans to deploy a WiMAX system, using television channels that the Federal Communications Commission has allocated for educational purposes. The channels–or 2.5 gigahertz (GHz) frequencies–have been used to broadcast educational programs into classrooms in a one-way exchange of information, but the WiMAX system would provide for a two-way exchange of data, officials say.

The WiMAX Forum, an industry group that establishes standards for the emerging technology, has only recently approved standards for some WiMAX equipment–but only for the 3.5 GHz frequencies used commonly in Europe and Asia. These frequencies have not yet been approved in the U.S. for delivering wireless broadband. Still, the Milwaukee school board is reportedly in talks with vendors to supply the equipment.

Wi-Fi is currently the solution most often deployed by municipalities for supplying free or low-cost wireless internet access to consumers. But Wi-Fi requires many antennae distributed throughout an area, whereas WiMAX reportedly can broadcast a wireless signal for several miles.

Davis estimates the test system the Milwaukee schools are developing would cost about $500,000. The district is expected to contract with a vendor soon to provide the equipment and installation.

The Milwaukee Area Instructional Network, including MPS, Milwaukee Area Technical College, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was allocated a $440,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to pursue the WiMAX system.

But the two colleges declined to participate, and only MPS agreed to kick in the $220,000 for the local match in that grant program.

The district reportedly is looking into separate solutions for providing WiMAX-enabled computers to those students whose families cannot afford them.

WiMAX technology, which is supposed to be able to broadcast a signal over several miles without needing a clear line of sight, has been in development for several years, with mixed results. The technology has been deployed in a rural Argentine school district for a test that reportedly is going well. Some experts, however, are skeptical that the solution will be viable for some time to come (see http://eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5873).

Links:

Milwaukee Public Schools
http://mpsportal.milwaukee.k12.wi.us/portal/server.pt

WiMAX Forum
http://www.wimaxforum.org/home/