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Q & A: The Challenges of Going Wireless

One of the largest school districts in the country, the 174,000-student Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, recently upgraded to a Cisco network that is entirely wireless. I had a chance to catch up with Neal Shelton, the district's network engineering supervisor, to ask a few questions via e-mail about why going wireless was important to the district and what kinds of challenges had to be overcome. My questions are in bold, and his answers follow.

The wireless implementation in Fairfax County Public Schools--or FCPS--obviously took quite a bit of time and effort. Why was this undertaking such a priority for the district?

Several years ago, many in FCPS understood the importance of wireless technology in a school environment. Over a two year period (2002-2004), FCPS implemented wireless technology in all its schools and centers. The number of access points grew from approximately 600 to nearly 8,000. Today, there are nearly 8,700 access points located in 240 sites.

The effort to bring wireless to the schools brought new freedom to educational computing. Access to network resources without the constraints of physical wiring provides widespread availability to students and faculty in a range of locations previously thought impractical to wired networking methods.

What sort of learning opportunities does this create for students?

The concept of "network access anywhere, anytime" has great appeal in an instructional environment. A wireless network deployment plan was developed that details necessary groundwork and infrastructure requirements needed for delivery of this new service.

Wireless networks allow students, teachers, and administrators access to the Internet, the FCPS intranet, and other network resources wherever the need arises. Wireless mobile computer labs enable a more efficient use of space that was previously reserved for permanently placed computer labs. These mobile labs allow classrooms to share resources on an as-needed basis and aid in the efficient integration of technology into the curriculum. There are more than 500 wireless mobile labs in place in FCPS. In addition, all elementary school classroom teachers now have a wireless laptop to access wireless infrastructure throughout the county.

What were some of the challenges you faced as the network was put in place? How did you deal with those challenges?

Size does matter. A network as large as the one at FCPS poses challenges. One of the challenges is to keep all access points and wireless controllers functioning in an efficient manner. To overcome this challenge, we created a structured environment that is based upon industry approved standards. The FCPS wireless team ensures wireless efficiency by standardizing configurations and installations. Any wireless difficulties within this framework are quickly resolved with the effective use of monitoring and troubleshooting tools.

To read more about the benefits and challenges of moving to a wireless network, check out this story I wrote for the most recent issue of Digital Directions.

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