A Wireless World

Wireless connectivity in schools is all the rage, and many school systems have at least gotten their feet wet with a wireless lab or a few portable laptop carts. But Bijaya Devkota, the chief information officer of Charles County Public Schools, in La Plata, Md., has done what many school systems only dream of—implemented universal wireless access throughout his district, including data and voice services. Mr. Devkota shared some of his district’s experiences in rolling out universal wireless, and the lessons and best practices learned throughout the process, as well as thoughts on the benefits of implementing wireless capability.

Mr. Devkota is clear about the intent of Charles County Public Schools to pursue a wireless initiative. “We had a vision for years to get a wireless network in place, and we’re now the first school system in the United States to have wireless end-to-end,” he says.

Devkota says the first crucial step in any large project is getting clear and unequivocal buy-in from senior management. “In deploying any comprehensive, multi-year project of this type, you have to sell the superintendent or CEO—the leader of the organization has to buy into the idea. At Charles County Public Schools, we had our superintendent’s support from day 1 and every step of the way.”

The vision of the system, however, must be about more than the technology. “This is not just a technical issue—technical issues can be solved. A lot of people see technology as a ‘Field of Dreams,’ build it and they will come, but you must have the end result in place before you build it,” he says.

And you have to start from the ground up, building a strong technology foundation, where each piece adds to the value of the whole picture. Having enough bandwidth on the back end was essential to push voice, data, and video through a wireless system without service outages or slow performance. Devkota notes that previous projects to build up the district’s network infrastructure not only enabled connectivity between schools and made the wireless initiative possible, it also bore fruits in many other directions. “All of a sudden we can digitize most of the textbooks for our core curriculum, and the teachers can access that information from anywhere with their wireless laptops,” he says. “Where before the time to put together a lesson plan was measured in days, now in many cases it’s hours or minutes, because the teachers can do it anywhere, anytime.”

And rolling out a capable infrastructure has allowed Charles County Public Schools to make use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) capabilities, since the network was designed to carry voice traffic as well as data. “We now have 4,000 VoIP desk phones, and 600 to 700 wireless phones,” Devkota says. “All of a sudden we could get rid of walkie-talkies. All of our administrators carry Cisco wireless phones with them and can be reached anytime, wherever they are, over our own network. Nurses, guidance counselors, assistant principals, all can make use of the VoIP phones anywhere.”

Universal wireless access can be a transformative experience for the entire academic experience, and makes effective use of resources of space and time, as well. “We devised on-demand, any time, anywhere instruction,” says Devkota. “Now we are not restricted to classrooms and labs. The cafeteria, really any corner of any school building, is a space we could use for instruction.”

That kind of flexibility is a benefit that Devkota sees as a long-term benefit, but not one which was necessarily anticipated in advance. “When we started out, we didn’t at that time know that we could create an on-demand instructional program,” he says. “But we knew that for the entire wireless project, if we could take one piece at a time, we’d be successful.”

Mobile video streaming is another key feature built in to the Charles County Public Schools wireless system, and, in fact, the video goes in two directions. CCPS can stream video to mobile wireless devices, but in addition, principals, vice-principals, and other key administrative staff have access to all of the district’s onsite video cameras from their wireless devices.

One key factor for success in the district’s wireless deployment was a thorough architectural analysis, including wireless site surveys to determine the necessary number and placement of wireless access points, as well as potential problem areas. Before starting the project, CCPS sent its own team to walk and test every potential site. This exhaustive approach generated invaluable information. “For example,” Devkota says, “from our surveys, it became apparent that we needed an access point in every classroom where walls were cinder block construction. Other types of classrooms could have one access point every 4 to 5 rooms.” After the wireless deployment, CCPS again sent teams to resurvey and identify any areas where additional access points were needed. Also, some high-traffic areas needed multiple access points to provide adequate bandwidth during times of peak use.

Devkota said that changing technology can mean chasing a moving target, but in the case of wireless networks, backward compatibility has made that somewhat less of an issue. CCPS started out deploying devices using the original wireless standard, 802.11b, but when 802.11g came out, it switched to the newer standard, in part because it is backward-compatible with the 802.11b devices already installed.

Paying close attention to security issues has also been a must. “Previously, someone typically had to physically enter your premises to hack in to your network,” Devkota says. “Now, with wireless access, someone could access your school’s network from a car sitting outside in the parking lot.” In the case of Charles County Public Schools, the attention to security necessitated some additional purchases. The IBM laptops CCPS purchases come with IBM’s own software pre-installed, but to fully secure the network using CCPS’s Cisco infrastructure, an additional Cisco client had to be installed and configured on each laptop. “Three years back we didn’t know we’d need an additional product to secure our network,” he says. “There was an additional cost, but we were willing to make the investment in security. We took it as a lesson learned—every day you learn something new.”

And CCPS has learned plenty over the several years the network and wireless implantation took. But every step has come on top of carefully planned previous steps. According to Devkota, “First we got stakeholder buy-in, then sat down with Cisco and started creating out blueprint. The first step was the wide-area network, creating 2 GB fiber links between our facilities. That enabled all the further steps.” Other pieces of the puzzle include network management, security, videoconferencing, distance learning/e-learning, data warehousing, and the VoIP capabilities.

“It’s a total end-to-end solution, and we’re at the tail end of it now,” he says. “We have some applications planned and in place, but we’re looking for more applications to run on the systems. It’s all so much easier with a good infrastructure.”

CCPS took out a loan of $6 million to fund the entire project. Wireless capability was the last section; the entire system for 27,000 students, including network switches and VoIP phones, cost about $1 million. Thoughout the build-out, doing as much as possible in-house and developing a strong in-house technical team was critical. “We did much of the work in-house, and sent people to training,” says Devkota. “Cisco did about 10 percent of the work and trained our in-house staff to do the rest.” CCPS also participates in the Cisco Academy program, and CCPS students involved in that program also helped in the design. To date, CCPS has hired two former students out of that group to work full time.

Devkota and CCPS are not merely resting on their laurels. “We’re looking at wide-area wireless capability,” he says. “The one shortcoming of VoIP and the kind of campus-area network we have is that 15–20 feet away from our sites, the wireless stops working, so between facilities we don’t have coverage.” To address this issue, particularly for administrators, CCPS is looking at multimode phones which can use CCPS’s local wireless service whenever in range of the school’s infrastructure but will switch to a cellular carrier for backup when off site. “Two years from now I can see looking at multimode, but it’s not mature yet,” Devkota says. With a firm footing in the present and one eye on the future, Charles County Public Schools is well positioned to take advantage of all the benefits educational technology has to offer.

Richard Hoffman is a contributing editor to School CIO.