Before it was the World Wide Web, the Internet started life as DARPAnet, a nationwide computer network that connected U.S. government with the nations leading research universities.
Although students and faculty members at virtually all universities and many school systems routinely access the Internet through their local networks today, gaining access from remote campuses is difficult.
Thats about to change through an initiative called Education First, a cooperative effort of two educational management organizations, based in Minnesota, and two Massachusetts-based wireless technology companies working to turn the entire educational community into one giant coast-to-coast hot spot.
According to Jo Boettcher, chief operating officer of the Broadband Alliance, one of the sponsoring educational organizations, the effort is the latest development in the fast-moving trend toward convergence on the nations campuses.
Boettcher noted that the educational community has made a “huge investment in footprint. Now were looking at the next way of applying that technology.”
“We saw the trend in wireless communications,” said Boettcher.
Education First, she said, “allows a virtual network so educators can share information as they have mobility. As we know, education is moving in that direction.”
Bluesocket and Airpath Wireless Inc., based in Massachusetts, will provide the security, authentication and back office management that handles the technical hand-off between students home campus networks and the networks from where they log in.
Airpaths roaming agreements with iPass, Brick, Sprint, SBC and other providers with national and international hot-spot networks will also enable students and faculty members to log on via commercial hot-spots, as well as enable business persons to get back to their corporate networks when visiting member campuses.
About 80 million American students attend some 7000 universities.
If all sign on, Education First, combined with AirPaths corporate footprint, would compose the largest public hot-spot network in the world, according to Airpath CEO Todd Myers.
Interuniversity connectivity is not new. Its been happening on many campuses—but not easily.
“Some of the universities that have already deployed Wi-Fi have worked together to create peering arrangements with one another,” said Myers.
“Students change every semester, so managing credentials becomes an IT nightmare,” he added, “especially if you were to have all these individual peering arrangements and have to constantly keep that up to date.”
Boettcher said she agreed. “In the university market, the peering relationship is a very taxing exercise,” she said. “Education First allows some of that hindrance to go away.”
Participating institutions will join the Education First service through The National Joint Powers Alliance, a nonprofit nationwide purchasing clearinghouse for schools and universities.
Education First will also offer the program to schools, kindergarten through grade 12, and will work to acquire Wi-Fi networks at reduced costs to those that dont have them.
One issue that wireless technology helps address in K-12 is school violence, allowing institutions to communicate public safety information across an IP infrastructure.
“We can deliver additional content, as well,” said Boettcher, adding that the Alliance is seeking sponsors to help extend the project to “Greenfield” schools that lack funding to be online.
“More importantly, we have staff that go from school to school but cant get connected,” she said. Wireless is a key enabler in many old city school districts, said Boettcher, where putting cabling through thick plaster walls was cost-prohibitive.
The first university to sign on was Winona State University in Minnesota.
The university has been at the cutting edge of mobility in education since 1994, when it became the first IBM Laptop University in a project that examined what happens when all students in a university are provided with laptops.
For the past six year, said Joe Whetstone, vice president of information technology at Winona State, the campus has been wireless.
According to Whetstone, extending access beyond the campus, onto other campuses and into the neighboring community, was the next step.
“This would enable them to have local connectivity back to our site,” he said.
HBC, the local cable provider in Winona, is scheduled to deploy access points around the city that will enable community-wide access to Education First around Winona.
The university uses the LEAP protocol with radius authentication.
Students who connect back to the campus network from an off-campus site, he said, connect through a VPN configured on the laptops before the university distributes them.
Exactly how will the system work as it expands nationally?
Myers described it like this: If a student is at School A and is visiting School B, she simply logs onto School Bs network using her normal log-in credentials.
School B forwards the authentication credentials to Airpaths InterRoam platform, which operates as a hub, checking them against School As user authentication database.
If the credentials are validated, authentication clearance is sent back to School B.
“Were taking the Web and allowing it to expand in a spoke environment with Airpath as a central traffic cop,” he said.
To get an idea of the utility such a network provides, think of the number of student athletes and fans who travel to distant campuses to attend athletic games or other events and have not been able to connect back to their home campus computers because they lacked connectivity.
Education First offers them ubiquitous access while relieving the various campuses of having to juggle guest access credentials.
Using a proxy authentication system, Education First allows a student who is given authentication credentials at one school to log in from an affiliated off-campus location.
That could be an affiliated commercial hot spot, a municipal network or a corporate site, as well as a school, college or university location.
To participate in Education First, universities will have to have an authentication system in place, secured by SSL, and their existing Wi-Fi network should conform with WISPr (Wireless ISP roaming) best practices.
Airpath will manage the network and enable roaming across campuses and other public hot spots through its InterRoam roaming platform.
The company is partnering with Bluesocket, specialists in securing and managing open wireless systems, to secure the platform.
Institutions that join the Education First Network will receive roaming revenue from participating commercial carriers.
The InterRoam platform will provide the AAA (Authentication, Authorization and Accounting) functions while the National Joint Powers Alliance, a national educational cooperative purchasing alliance, and the Broadband Alliance will handle business management and distribution of those funds.
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