The Milwaukee Public Schools district entered uncharted territory when it recently announced it would take a chance on WiMax wireless broadband. The district hopes to build a WiMax network by next summer to give its low-income students free Internet access.
The decision to use WiMax comes on the heels of a use-it-or-lose-it ultimatum by the Federal Communications Commission. Decades ago, the federal government allocated portions of the 2.5-GHz spectrum to schools and public universities for educational purposes. Much of the spectrum has remained unused, so in 2004 the FCC ruled that any portions of it not in use or leased by 2008 could be auctioned off.
Rather than lose it, the cash-strapped district--in which three out of four kids participate in the free lunch program for low-income students--decided to build a WiMax pilot system covering roughly 5 square miles. It will build the network using a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce and $240,000 of its own funds and supply low-income students with devices to receive the antenna's signal at home. MPS is also applying for a federal grant for laptops equipped with a WiMax chip.
WiMax, sometimes-called "WiFi on steroids," uses television bandwidth rather than radio frequency. The technology is largely untested in the U.S., but its advocates claim it can reach people several miles away at faster speeds than cable broadband, DSL or WiFi. WiFi, for example, uses antennas that serve users within roughly 200 feet.