WiMax Technology Extends Learning Opportunities
New high-speed wireless technology shows potential for education in rural areas
In U.S. cities and suburbs, high-speed wireless Internet connections are becoming more commonplace, making "anytime, anywhere learning" for students a more viable concept. But that kind of access and the opportunities it provides are not yet available in most rural areas.
However, a solution is in sight, and two recent demonstrations at educational technology conferences in Missoula, Mont., whet the appetite of educators and information specialists who want to use it to level the playing field for students. Atop a remote mountain near Missoula, engineers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) awed conference attendees with the video streaming, Web surfing and email capabilities of new wireless technology standards called 802.16 or WiMax (an acronym for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access).
WiMax is a set of standards for delivering point-to-point, as well as point-to-multi-point wireless broadband connectivity. Point-to-point transmission is a direct transmission from a tower to a central-office-type location up to 30 miles away. At the central office location, point-to-multi-point connectivity extends up to five miles from the central office.
"WiMax is important because it's potentially the most cost-effective approach for broadband data service in rural areas," says Jeff Evans, a GTRI senior research engineer who led the demo team. In rural areas, the cost to lay fiber for wired broadband service is about $200,000 or more per mile, an investment that communications companies typically don't want to make because they cannot recoup their money within several years.
"But with WiMax, an Internet service provider that wants to reach a small community up to 30 miles away can set up a wireless link for thousands of dollars rather than hundreds of thousands," Evans notes. "You can quickly provide a long-haul link of 70 megabits per second and then deploy a local WiMax radio to provide up to several megabits per second to each home in the area -- giving you DSL speeds at a reasonable cost."
Such access may soon be available in Georgia and elsewhere. WiMax-capable equipment for fixed-location connections is expected to be readily available on the market by the end of this year. Meanwhile, a new mobile WiMax standard, or 802.16e, is expected in late 2006 with compatible equipment available in 2007.
Around the nation, wireless technology companies and researchers have been demonstrating the capabilities of the new standards. The Georgia Department of Education's Mike Hall, deputy superintendent of information technology, involved GTRI researchers in the Montana demo through GTRI's Foundations for the Future (F3) technology assistance program for K-12 Georgia schools. Intel sponsored the conferences and invited Evans and his colleagues to design and implement the network demos.
"The people who saw the demo were amazed," says Terry Smithson, Intel's K-12 marketing manager. "They had to ride horses for two and a half hours to get to the top of the mountain. Then we presented a live videoconference with GTRI researchers, and later let the participants surf the Internet, see streaming video and check email on laptops."
Hall hailed the success of the demo in overcoming the speed, performance, distance and security issues that hamper current wireless technology. Though WiMax won't necessarily be a solution inside the walls of Georgia schools - many of which are already hard-wired for broadband Internet access - the technology could make it possible for students to learn in all kinds of places. He hopes Georgia can lead the nation in implementing this goal.
"We envision access for all students from bus stops, playgrounds, parks and, more importantly, all homes," Hall says. "If I live in a small, south Georgia community right now, high-speed access is a major problem. Technology is a great equalizer. With equipment and access, the world can come into any home."
GTRI, GDOE, Intel and TSI, an Atlanta-based technology integration company, are making plans for continued interaction to bring WiMax technology to Georgia's students and others. TSI owner John David Pickering says: "Now we have a good consortium of industry like Intel, business people like myself and researchers at GTRI that will allow companies and educators to see and use the latest, greatest technology. It will take all of us to deliver it."
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Writer: Jane Sanders