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FCC Opens Space on Airwaves That Could Benefit Schools

The Federal Communications Commission has opened up free space on the nations airwaves for a new class of digital devices that could beam data across a school campus and bring cheaper Internet service to many classrooms.

But now the waiting begins--to find out when, and if, companies actually develop the equipment.

Approval by the FCC--which allocates slivers of the electromagnetic spectrum to carry traffic from radio and TV stations, pagers, cellular phones, satellite uplinks, and other sources--is legally essential to any new use of the airwaves.

On Jan. 9, the commission approved a span of 300 megahertz, a substantial chunk of bandwidth, for what it called Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure devices that provide short-range, high-speed wireless digital communication. That bandwidth, in turn, is composed of three smaller slivers of frequencies--each assigned specific power and usage limits.

The first of those could potentially support small wireless networks of computers inside a single building, and the second might allow for networking among adjacent buildings. The third sliver would permit the high-speed transfer of data between two points several miles apart, such as between a school or business and a commercial Internet service provider.

Using wireless systems eliminates the costly retrofitting of older buildings with data wires. Those costs escalate when the walls contain asbestos, which must be specially handled, said Michelle Richards, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

Schools with wireless networks also gain flexibility in moving computers from room to room and in equipping portable classrooms that may be used only for a limited period.

In approving the plan, the FCC noted its potential benefits for schools, libraries, and health facilities. The FCC opened the door further to these users by not imposing complicated usage rules or cumbersome technical standards for the equipment.

"Basically they've gone with a simple-is-better approach," Ms. Richards said.

Some schools already use wireless networks and devices that operate on other parts of the spectrum. Such technology, however, has shorter range and more limited data-carrying capacity than the new class of systems will likely bring.

By distributing Internet services by wireless, the 870-student public schools in Neodesha, Kan., have avoided maintenance costs and saved on service charges from Internet access providers, said Paul Martin, the district's technology director.

Ms. Richards said she hoped the ruling will be "a real impetus for companies to engage in [research and development] immediately."

But wireless companies are coy about their intentions. One manufacturer of wireless devices used by schools, Digital Ocean Inc., has "probably nothing in the short term" under development for the new bandwidth, said Dale Urie, the marketing director of the Lenexa, Kan.-based company.

James Lovette, a scientist at Apple Computer Inc., emphasized that most schools will continue to rely heavily on copper wires or fiber optic cables for their computer networks.

"Reserve the wireless stuff for the stuff you can't do with wires--where it's impractical or there's asbestos," he advised.

Even if the new wireless devices are several years in arriving, school groups said that the new spectrum will ultimately prove valuable and that it signals a willingness by the FCC to favor schools in other important regulatory decisions.

U.S. West Offers Discounted Internet Access in Denver

Hundreds of Denver teachers and families began receiving Internet services in their homes this month under an arrangement that will contribute cash to a technology fund in the city's public schools.

Through a marketing deal with the school system, Denver-based U.S. West is offering unlimited use of the Internet, a free Netscape browser, and access to a telephone help line for $12.95 per month--currently the lowest price in the metropolitan area.

Subscribers must also pay a one-time connection fee of $15. From the monthly fee, $2 per person will be returned to the Denver district to be spent on technology, said Craig Cook, the district's chief operating officer.

The district's students, parents, teachers, administrators, staff, volunteers, and their families are eligible for the deal, which the district promoted as a holiday gift in a brochure sent to homes before Christmas.

As of last week, just days after the telecommunications company started accepting applications, 523 people had signed up, said Susan R. Hartley, the U.S. West sales manager who oversees the arrangement.

She said the 66,000-student system, which has more than 10,000 employees, promised to help recruit 4,000 subscribers within two years.

U.S. West has a similar deal with a Utah district and is planning another with a cluster of districts near Colorado Springs, Colo., Ms. Hartley said.

In each case, the company will provide unlimited Internet service for $10.95 per month, while the school partner determines an additional amount that would be refunded to the schools.

Ms. Hartley said the arrangement lets the company test products and services that it may offer in light of pending federal rules that might require telecommunications companies to support expanded school access to the information highway.

Denver school officials said they hope to encourage students and teachers to spend time after school researching projects on-line. Money generated for the district will be spent on computers and expanding Internet services in the schools, Mr. Cook said.

Larry Lindauer, the principal at the city's John F. Kennedy High School, said teachers are signing up for the service. More than twice the expected number of teachers have signed up for an Internet class that the school will offer next month.

Mr. Lindauer welcomed the low-cost access. "Students who now have access at home will spend a lot more time doing research."

Another benefit of the agreement is that encouraging at-home use of the Internet may ease traffic on the school district's own network, Mr. Cook noted.

That districtwide system, which includes data transmission, telephone service, and classroom Internet service, is near capacity, and school officials have been looking for ways to relieve the burden.

--ANDREW TROTTER [email protected]

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