Schools Could Be The First In U.S. To Use WiMax

Courtesy of InformationWeek

A cash-strapped school district seems an unlikely candidate to embrace bleeding-edge technology. But facing a use-it-or-lose-it choice on its allocated radio spectrum, Milwaukee Public Schools is among several schools and universities ready to take a chance on WiMax wireless broadband, which would make them among the first major U.S. implementers of the emerging tech.

Decades ago, the government allocated a portion of the 2.5-GHz spectrum to schools nationwide for educational television programming, but much of it hasn't been used. In 2004, the FCC issued a proposal: Any portions of the spectrum not in use or leased by 2008 could be auctioned.

Our next lesson involves a WiMax RFP.
Photo by Darren Hauck/AP

Milwaukee Public Schools--where three out of four kids get the free lunch program for low-income students--hopes to build a WiMax network by next summer to give students free Internet access. "We don't want to lose precious bandwidth that can be used to benefit our low-income students," says James Davis, the Milwaukee school district's director of technology.

The district is treading into uncharted territory. A dozen or so municipalities nationwide are setting up free and low-cost wireless broadband networks, but they're using well-established Wi-Fi on the unlicensed 5.4- to 5.8-GHz spectrum. The Milwaukee school district says it's talking to several WiMax vendors with equipment that works with its 2.5-GHz spectrum, but none of it is certified by the WiMax Forum, an industry standards group. Certified equipment is just now becoming available, and it's initially only for 3.5 GHz, a spectrum used in Europe, Asia, and other places where WiMax is gaining momentum, but one that's not yet approved by the FCC for wireless broadband.

In its current state, WiMax wouldn't offer Milwaukee students much mobility. In the first phase, planned for completion by August 2007, the school district plans to place a WiMax antenna on its headquarters to serve a five-mile perimeter. It's applying for a federal grant for laptops equipped with a WiMax chip, expected to hit the market this year. Eligible students would get devices for their homes to receive the antenna's signal. But to stay connected, students couldn't venture far from the device.

Still, the project could test some of the claims WiMax proponents have made about the technology's breadth and speed compared with Wi-Fi, which requires dozens of access points to service a community.

The school district has allocated $240,000 for the first phase and expects to get a grant of around $200,000 from the Department of Commerce, but it's still discussing how to cover the costs of ongoing management and maintenance. It's considering approaching a telecom provider about building the network and giving it any excess spectrum capacity as reimbursement.

WiMax Deals

George Mason University has leased 75% of its spectrum to Nextel and wireless Internet service provider Clearwire, and hopes to work with those companies to use it for WiMax services in Washington, D.C., says Michael Kelley, the university's program director of telecommunications.

Last fall, Wayne State University in Detroit and neighboring school districts sought bids from service providers to lease most of their spectrum to build a high-speed wireless broadband network and offer low-cost services to students and areas without broadband. It's in negotiations with finalists. It's likely going to be mobile WiMax, says Patrick Gossman, director of academic technologies and customer services at the university. "Our students are always on the go and want to stay connected."

But vendors still are working on standards and equipment to enable mobile WiMax, which would allow the kind of roaming Internet use many people imagine. Only if that happens will WiMax make Wi-Fi start to look like yesterday's wireless broadband.