Taking Wireless to the Max

For a lot of his peers, James Davis is a guinea pig. The director of technology for Milwaukee Public Schools, Davis is overseeing a project that will make his district one of the first nationwide to implement a free, WiMax wireless Internet network for its students. School CIO spoke with Davis about what WiMax will mean for the school community.

Q. Can you begin by explaining 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 gigahertz 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] sixth graders free laptops.

Q. When would the program for the sixth graders be in place?

A. The first phase will roll out in October or early November. Then we’ll work with three or four elementary schools in this immediate area [of his administrative building] during the second semester. Other schools will be brought online as we scale the network.

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. We can’t sell this service. The signal will go well beyond the boundaries of Milwaukee and someone in the commercial space could handle sales. Commercial companies all want additional bandwidth. My school district does not have the money to build such a network nor do we have the expertise to build a network throughout the entire city.

Q. What’s your role as CIO? Are you overseeing this project?

A. Yes I am. Because this [initial] phase is rather small, I’m working directly with our teaching and learning staff here because we want to shape this as best we can for maximum benefit. I’m trying to create relationships with vendors in the marketplace because they have the expertise. This is going to become just another piece of the infrastructure. But this is so new I feel a personal obligation to make sure it goes down the right path and we take advantage of this opportunity.

Christopher Heun is a New York–based freelancer who also writes for InformationWeek and InternetWeek.