British schools are wasting money on wireless networks that don't work properly, claimed 3Com and specialist reseller 802UK. The two companies kicked off a fight back against anti-Wi-Fi misinformation, arguing that not only is wireless less harmful than mobile phones, but it can provide major educational benefits.
"A lot of money is being spent on the wrong things," said Gary Hudson, 802UK's managing director. "When we host seminars, 80% of schools say yes, we have a wireless network, and no, it doesn't work properly.
"It's because the person who put it in doesn't understand wireless – you have to design for capacity, not coverage. Most people design for coverage, but how many people are using the network, and where are they moving?"
Better network design, including the use of what he called second-generation wireless – thin access points, managed by a switch – would make wireless a more effective educational tool and boost its reputation with parents, he added.
Hudson slammed the way that the topic of wireless in schools has been sensationalised, in particular by the BBC's Panorama programme.
"The judgement has to be made by governors and teachers, but even if you turn off the school network, RF [radio frequency radiation] is still there in every street - there may be ten to fifteen other access points still broadcasting," he said.
Public ignorance can only be combatted by education, said Steve Johnson, 3Com's UK channel manager, though he admitted that overcoming some of the scaremongers will be difficult.
"We're going to take the issue head-on and provide as much information as possible," he said.
For example, in claiming that Wi-Fi networks produce less radiation than mobile phones, 3Com points out that a mobile phone typically transmits around 40mW and is held next to the head, whereas a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop emits under 0.1mW and is likely to be at least a foot away.
"If somebody's already convinced that Wi-Fi is dangerous, you're going to struggle to overcome that," Johnson said. "I'm a parent too, so I can understand their point of view, but I'd like to think I'm a little better informed than the average.
"I've also seen the huge interest that using IT in the education process generates among children. They just seem to retain information better because of the way it's being presented – and while that's driven by the skill of the teachers, underlying it all is wireless technology."
The two companies are running a series of seminars and later this month will publish a Wireless for Schools guidebook.
They are among the suppliers angling for a slice of the billions of pounds that the UK government will put into school infrastructures over the next decade or so via its Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. As part of BSF, the government wants greater use of ICT (information communications and technology) within education.
Schools used to be a terrible market for IT, spending as little as possible and often operating on hand-me-downs, Johnson said. "That's turned on its head now, and schools have become very creative in their use of IT – most already have wireless," he added.
He said that the biggest benefit of wireless – and second-generation wireless in particular, as it can provide seamless roaming and can load-balance users across adjacent access points – is its ubiquity, as it makes network-based teaching or learning services available anywhere in the school.
"Previously there was a gap," he said. "IT was locked away in a room or wheeled around on a trolley. Wireless removes those chains."
It can also be used to improve security, he added. For example, IP-based CCTV cameras can monitor doorways and gates, or staff could use voice-over-Wi-Fi handsets to summon a qualified first-aider if a student is injured.