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FCC Proposal Seen Slashing Cost of Making Classroom Connection

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Local school officials were cautiously optimistic last week that a proposal to open up a portion of the radio airwaves to make it easier and cheaper for computers to communicate with one another and with the Internet might help dramatically expand educational use of telecommunications.

Under the rule proposed by the Federal Communications Commission, which will soon be published in the Federal Register, the portion of the radio spectrum would be opened up for free, unlicensed use. That change could greatly reduce the cost of bridging the "last mile" between the classroom and the information-rich world of telecommunications.

Currently, schools that want to log on to the global Internet computer network often must be rewired. The estimates for "hard wiring" the nation's schools vary widely, but most begin in the tens of billions of dollars. (See Education Week, March 2, 1994.)

Although the FCC action is designed primarily to encourage technology companies to develop products to harness the newly freed spectrum, the use of an inexpensive wireless system could be a boon to cash-strapped districts trying to implement technology plans, some administrators said.

James Caradonio, the deputy superintendent of the Worcester, Mass., public schools, said that renovation and construction costs typically are a major stumbling block to proposals to wire schools for telecommunications. Such costs represent a large fraction of his district's $15 million, long-range networking plan, he said.

"The issue is really an infrastructure problem where low-tech meets high-tech," he said.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore frequently have called on the telecommunications industry to help wire every classroom for access to the information highway by 2000.

But the high cost of running wires through the halls of aging school buildings that were designed long before electronic communications were an everyday reality remains a deterrent.

Moreover, many school districts are reluctant to undertake expensive construction projects that could disturb potentially hazardous asbestos that lies dormant in many buildings.

"That's really the concern that we have," Mr. Caradonio said. "The retrofit of buildings without breaking the bank to meet electrical codes and everything else."

The wireless solution, such as the proposed FCC rule would permit, would reduce the cost by allowing computers to communicate throughout a building or across a campus over the airwaves. Schools could tap into the Internet through a single high-speed connection.

Some Drawbacks

Wireless communications are already used in everything from cellular telephones to garage-door openers to nursery monitors. And telecommunications companies specializing in wireless products have begun courting schools with the promise that they can provide students with access to the Internet and other services at a fraction of the cost of wiring buildings. (See Education Week, May 10, 1995.)

But the FCC's move would improve upon the wireless technologies now available to schools.

Schools in Florida, where booming enrollments have forced many students into portable classrooms, are already using wireless telephone modems to provide telecommunications services to the temporary buildings. The wireless versions do not have the capacity of conventional modems, however, and therefore cannot distribute information as rapidly.

And, said Chris Master, the executive director of instructional technology for the Dade County, Fla., schools, telephone companies consider each existing cellular linkup to be a separate phone line--and charge accordingly.

The district already plans to spend $50 million on conventional rewiring, and "we have not figured out how existing wireless services are really going to solve our problems," Ms. Master said.

The industry will also need to create devices capable of using the newly freed-up airwaves.

Some experts cautioned, however, that unlicensed radio communications have their own drawbacks, including the possibility of interference from other, nearby unlicensed equipment. The FCC hopes its technical standards will minimize that problem.

Mr. Caradonio and others also noted that many schools are not even equipped with sufficient electrical outlets to take advantage of the new technology when it comes.

"This is the reality of the information age," he said. "Once you get down to the classroom level, it's 'We don't have any plugs, Mr. Caradonio.'"

The FCC issued its proposed guidelines in response to petitions filed a year ago by Apple Computer Inc. and the Wireless Information Networks Forum, or WINForum, a group of wireless-communications companies.

A final regulation is expected by the end of the year.

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