Plano, Texas schools see benefits from district-wide Wi-Fi

Wireless is 'unstoppable and inevitable,' says Xirrus CEO

Wi-Fi has been around long enough to become a fact of life for many wireless users, and that's increasingly true in education settings in the U.S.

At the Plano Independent School District in Plano, Texas, 82 schools and office campuses are equipped with Wi-Fi offering separate private channels for teachers and staff and a public channel for students who bring in their own Wi-Fi devices to school.

The $4 million Wi-Fi project, finished in 2010, has helped guide instructional styles and even complements special collaboration spaces near classrooms at the district's newest building, McMillen High School , which opened this fall, school officials said.

Three of the newest schools are completely wireless and have no traditional Ethernet cabling to desktops, said Mitch Mitchell, assistant director of technology operations for the district, which serves 55,000 students and has 7,000 staff members. The 82 sites are served by 1,200 access points (APs) from Xirrus, which was able to provision the entire district with fewer APs than Wi-Fi competitors had offered, Mitchell said.

Not only does having Wi-Fi throughout the district allow students to bring personal devices to school, it also makes it easier to get information to teachers and students -- anywhere they want, said Mary Hewett, executive director of instruction technology.

"It does modify the way you teach," she said. "Wi-Fi is almost something teachers use without thinking because the computer isn't attached to the wall."

She said the McMillen school includes collaboration spaces where students can gather in small groups just outside of a formal classroom for work on Internet-based research.

"With collaboration spaces, the whole teaching model changed," she said. "That open space is an extension of the classroom where the small group of students can go to collaborate while others continue in the classroom."

She said the ubiquity of Wi-Fi is bound to impact future classroom designs.

For students who are normally accustomed to Wi-Fi at home, it's natural to expect it at school, Hewett added. "Wi-Fi is what they do in life, so now they bring it to school," she said.

Mitchell said there's plenty of capacity in the Wi-Fi system for growth, including bandwidth for streaming video and videoconferencing. The system already has an installed base of iPads and "every day, somebody wants to do something else with wireless," he said.

Testing of voice over Wi-Fi for telephones is also under way.

The Plano district said it got good support and a good price from Xirrus, a five-year-old vendor focused solely on Wi-Fi provisioning. The company has about $70 million in annual revenues and is staffed by 150 workers, said Xirrus CEO Dirk Gates. He said Xirrus is one of the top 10 Wi-Fi suppliers worldwide in what is a $3 billion annual Wi-Fi market led by Cisco and Motorola.

Wireless and Wi-Fi growth is "unstoppable and inevitable," Gates said. "Students today are living wirelessly and have never seen an RJ11 connector [used for phones] or sometimes even an RJ45 for Ethernet."

Gates said education "leads the pack" among vertical organizations interested in Wi-Fi. "Every kid has two or three devices and schools are engaged in a Bring Your Own Device strategy as well as industry. Schools are embracing bringing in iPods and iPhones."

As an example of how the number of devices per student is exploding, he said Carnegie Mellon University, which Xirrus also provisioned, had 4,000 wireless devices on its Wi-Fi network for 5,000 undergrads three years ago. That number mushroomed to 13,000 devices for 5,000 students this year.

Gates said many enterprises and schools haven't provided enough Wi-Fi capacity to meet demand in the next one or two years, although he said Plano should have plenty.

When the new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard emerges in 2012 with 1Gbps throughput, many organizations will need to upgrade their APs to take advantage of such speeds. Xirrus plans to offer that gear, Gates said, as will other major Wi-Fi providers.

Except for data center and data backbones that are served by 10Gbps or 100Gbps Ethernet or fiber, Gates believes the world will be virtually wireless in the coming decade, putting an end to pulling Ethernet cable to desktops and desktop phones.

The students now using Wi-Fi at home and sometimes at school will enter the work place in coming years expecting ubiquitous wireless connections. "They will want to connect wirelessly and will demand that same form of functionality and lifestyle in the work place that they've known elsewhere," Gates said.

The challenge will be for many workplaces to adapt. "The vast majority of enterprises have only scratched the surface of Wi-Fi and Gartner estimates that 80% of enterprises don't have pervasive Wi-Fi," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

Read more about wireless networking in Computerworld's Wireless Networking Topic Center.

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