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Wi-Fi Goes to School

PHILADELPHIA -- The numbers are undeniably big: 1,2000 schools, 87,000 faculty and administration, and over 1 million students. But Kevin Mazzatta, a wireless client solutions executive at IBM , counters with his own numbers: hundreds of offices dotting the globe, 325,000 employees, and tens of thousands of mobile workers like himself.

If there ever was a match for the unwieldy New York City school system, IBM is it. Mazzatta and IBM have taken on the task of outfitting New York City's schools with 802.11b capabilities. "We could relate to them because of our own experience" giving workers wireless solutions, he said Tuesday afternoon at the 802.11 Planet Conference, which is hosted by internetnews.com's parent company INT Media Group .

The program to outfit the New York City school system with Wi-Fi began last year, when IBM signed on to unwire the Big Apple's schools through the federal E-Rate program. With E-Rate's Universal Service Fund, created in 1997 to provide federally subsidized technology equipment to schools and libraries, most of New York's poorest schools could qualify for 90 percent discounts of "all commercially available telecommunications services," including wireless. In the first four years of the program, New York City schools have received more than $500 million in technology help.

In the third quarter of 2001, IBM had authored a plan to outfit the schools. With Wi-Fi, schools could spread access more evenly to students, instead of having them crowded around the one or two Internet-ready computers in the classroom. And under the e-rate program, Mazzatta pointed out, an access point (AP) that would have cost $1,000 would cost a school about $75.

Explaining IBM's program, Mazzatta said the "n-generation" needed to be taught in different ways. "We teach students now to learn how to learn, instead of just absorbing," he said.

But, as always, it comes down to the numbers. Setting out to wire 12,000 schools spread across five boroughs would seem an insurmountable task. IBM started incrementally. At the end of last year, just months after its report to the New York City Board of Education, Big Blue unveiled its pilot 802.11 program at a school in Jamaica, Queens.

The plan was to start small, wiring schools in batches of 250 to 300. Soon, that number was scaled back to 200. By the end of the year, IBM hopes to have 450 schools 802.11 capable, with 10,000 APs. Mazzatta said the placement of antennas became an unexpected issue. "We are talking about junior-high and high-school kids, so there's the vandalism aspect," he cautioned.

Mazzatta said the wiring of the schools took just two days, but the process of dealing with the triple threat of federal red tape, the slow-moving Board of Ed, and the whims of principals' schedules made the process longer.

"Everyone has to have a say in it," he said.

Even if IBM were to plunk APs in every classroom in the city, Mazzatta warned New York's 1 million students would not automatically have always-on, high-speed, mobile Internet access: The program only provides the infrastructure.