Wireless technology continues to disappoint. And it's not just the scarcity of free access. Schools spending big budgets on wireless for laptops and PDAs report dropped connections and poor performance that affects their hopes for anywhere, anytime learning and teaching.
But a new generation of wireless technology, from MERU, looks like reversing those experiences. Instead of individual devices "looking for" the best connections - the status quo for most wireless networks - MERU networks are intelligent. They track the users and direct them to the best access points - and video and voice are also well supported. Business is already responding, and schools look like following suit.
Visitors to a recent MERU presentation at New Line Learning Federation in Kent were impressed by the sight of more than 60 students sitting at laptops taking an examination. It wasn't so much that they were using laptops that impressed, but the fact that they were all using a wireless network simultaneously. Such a large number of users, in one spot, enjoying trouble-free wireless access for a high-stakes activity is something of a rarity because of existing disappointing experiences and a lack of full confidence in the technology.
It's the technology's suitability for high-stakes activities that has brought MERU quickly to the attention of schools. And they would be foolish to discount the references from what is currently the most high-stakes online activity of all - making money. Lost connections and technical problems will not be tolerated in a money-making environment. That's why bingo halls country wide use MERU technology (known as Air Traffic control) - so that "house" really does mean house and not a spinning time-wheel, lost connection messages and angry, volatile customers.
More impressive again is the Credit Mercantile Exchange in Chicago (see video above) where the traders handle "trillions of dollars" in the "pits" where they operate, an enviroment that is unsuitable for wired-in devices. They managed to maintain the same level of reliability of their previous non-mobile network but with far higher numbers (around 1,000). And the sensitive nature of the information required maximum security. The verdict? "We made the best choice - it was the best solution for the environment."
MERU's 'single channel' and 'virtual cell' are strong performers for open spaces
The New Line Learning Federation has come to attention for the clever ways in which it is modelling open learning spaces as it develops its "learning plazas". All the developments are closely monitored as New LIne "learns" its way to its own school of the future.
One of MERU's strengths is its advantage over rivals when operating in open spaces. It is ideal for one-per-pupil set-ups using laptops or PDAs (personal digital assistants like the iPod Touch). That's because traditional wireless networks are not much different, technology-wise, from home set-ups in as much as they use "access points" that have a channel number. When you put more than three of these in a space you can get interference between access points on the same channel, and other problems that lead to dropped connections.
MERU uses what is known as a "virtual cell" which means devices only ever "see" one access point. The single channel eliminates the interference and the "virtual cenll" improves access and roaming performance, increasing the potential number of users and, with the adoption of the new 802.11n standard (compatible with previous versions), brings additional capacity for video and voice over wireless. In fact MERU has just been confirmed as number two in the worldwide enterprise market for 802.11n wireless networks. According to Dell'Oro Group research, MERU is now second to Cisco and ahead of third-place Aruba.
Other schools that want up-to-the-minute and future-proofed wireless technology are now finding out about MERU. Costello Technology College, in Basingstoke, has run a trial of a MERU wireless network and is said to be impressed with the stability and performance. A decision on implementation is expected this week.
Of course there are also longer-term school users. Blackfen School for Girls, in Sidcup, Kent, for example, adopted MERU in 2008 and the company has prepared case studies that can be checked on the MERU website.
A big challenge for a relative education newcomer like MERU is raising its profile and getting its message out in time to be considered by schools and organisations involved in big capital projects like Building Schools for the Future or the Primary Capital Programme. Wireless technology, and explanations of the different "generations", can be difficult to explain and "sell". You can't see it and it's difficult to demonstrate. But everyone knows the frustration of poor performance - and that is the feedback that continues to come from schools - which can keep concepts like school network rooms alive beyond their sell-by date due to a perception that wireless networks are not delivering what many companies have promised.
According to Mark Howell, MERU Networks regional manager for the UK and Ireland, the company is beginning to develop a profile after the initial stage of "challenging the status quo". "If I can use the analogy of a teacher, when you purchase one of our networks you are employing an effective teacher, one who is efficient and gives everyone a fair shout," he says. "'Billy, what do you have to say?' Your class is led by someone who will direct communications effectively and allow for a full, comprehensive discussion - in network terms, on a micro-second basis.
"What does that mean for a school? You roll out a laptop trolley and log everyone on and you don't get a disaster where the logon can take 20 minutes of a 40-minute lesson. if you purchase one of the old types of wireless network you are using an ineffective teacher - one who can only work from the front of the class and everyone can all talk at once - all noise and disruption and no one gets a turn."
MERU case studies
Blackfen School for Girls story on the Gomo News website (with links to other schools)
BBC coverage of 6,000 Norwegian students taking part in wireless exams pilot using MERU
How MERU spells out its advantages for education
• Fast deployment — no channel planning for deployment and moves/adds/changes
• Lowest cost of ownership with up to 30% fewer access points, cabling and installation costs
• Best investment protection — 100% backward compatibility supports full performance for all 802.11a/b/g/n devices
• Comprehensive, flexible security with rogue detection & mitigation
• Predictable and fair performance for all clients — no proprietary drivers to manage