Taking Wireless to the Max

from School CIO

At the Milwaukee Public Schools, director of technology James Davis is building one the nation's first WiMax networks.

Q. Can you describe the project?

A. Milwaukee Public Schools is one of many public school districts that own a radio station and has a frequency assigned to it. We also have a closed circuit television station for instructional broadcasting. The FCC made some rule changes that allowed us to look at repurposing the use of that frequency. We decided to use part of this spectrum to build a district owned, wireless WiMax network.

We viewed this spectrum we have and the resulting wireless network as a way to bridge the digital divide. The 2.5 GHz spectrum that the FCC gave us for the benefit of TV broadcasting is a licensed spectrum, unlike Wi-Fi, so no one gets into that space except the licensee—you don't have any intrusion from outside users. We were able to give each student an access account, so now they will have broadband at home and it won't make a difference if their parents can afford DSL, or Road Runner, or anything else. We are an 84 percent free-or-reduced school lunch district. Too many of our students' parents can't afford Road Runner or DSL at home. So this will be zero cost to them. We also have a companion project of giving our [approximately 11,000] 6th graders free laptops.

Q. Could you compare WiMax and Wi-Fi?

A. There are two major differences. One is the distance of the signal and the capacity, how much data it can transmit. We're hoping we can get five miles out, as opposed to Wi-Fi, which on a good day may be 200 feet. At a minimum, we're talking miles versus feet. Wi-Fi capacity is up to 54 Mbps. For WiMax we know we can get up to DSL speeds [up to 70 Mbps]. Also, Wi-Fi lives in an unlicensed environment. WiMax, for us, will live in a licensed environment.

Q. What does this cost and who's paying for it?

A. We got a grant for the first phase from the U.S. Commerce Department, a 40 percent matching grant. This first phase will cost us about $250,000. As we get ready to roll out and talk about the entire city, remember, we have this frequency which has commercial value. The Sprint Nextels and the Clearwires all want this [frequency] because they all have made announcements regarding WiMax networks. We're hopeful we can attract a commercial partner who will help us build the network, and as payment, they'll be allowed to use all that excess capacity.

— Interviewed by Christopher Heun