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.

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