Habitat for Learning

With videoconferencing, educators at a city zoo can teach about animals directly from their habitats.

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The mobile cart has teleconferencing equipment from PolyCom Inc., a hospital-quality battery power supply, a Bluetooth-enabled wireless keyboard and a wireless client to connect with the network. The cart even has special wheels to handle rugged ground and a cover to protect against the elements.

The wireless videoconferencing cart was only part of what the zoo needed, though. It still required the infrastructure to transmit from that cart out on the grounds to classrooms signed up for the programs.

The zoo's initial idea was to run copper and fiber lines, Lynch says. But implementing a standard hub-and-spoke design would require land lines from each wireless access point back to the switch -- a costly proposition for the hilly, tree-covered 168-acre zoo.

Instead, the zoo settled on a newer technology, Cisco Systems Inc.'s Aironet 1510 outdoor mesh access points, which would extend real-time videoconferencing out onto the grounds without the need for additional cabling or line-of-sight access. This made it not only easier to deploy but cheaper, too. (Lynch estimates savings of tens of thousands of dollars.)

"The beauty of wireless mesh is it uses radio frequency to connect back to the wired network so you can extend the network to areas that are difficult for cable," Lynch explains.

He points to other advantages, saying that this wireless data network is a self-healing, self-configuring system, so the zoo doesn't need a radio frequency specialist to manage it.

"It's scalable, so if they want to expand to different areas in the zoo, they just have to add access points," Lynch adds.

In 2005, the zoo received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to cover the $100,000 price tag of its wireless infrastructure and the mobile teleconferencing equipment, Searles says. The grant also covered the cost of developing programming at the zoo.

"The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo distance learning program is an outstanding example of how school systems and community organizations can work together to achieve critical education levels," says Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who helped secure the federal grant.

Lynch says TSI did a site survey to figure out where to put the access points for wireless coverage. Still, with the zoo's challenging topography, TSI workers had to fine-tune the system afterward, aiming and repositioning access points to maximize coverage areas.

Even today, there are limits to the coverage, Ryan says.

"It can't go everywhere, but we're working to that point, connecting all the dots," she says, noting that the zoo has more dead spots in the summer, when leafy trees block access. And Ryan says high winds can knock out power on some of the equipment.

On the other hand, the infrastructure takes little in terms of maintenance, says Frank Budziak, IT manager for Cleveland Metroparks, a state organization that includes the zoo. Access points occasionally need to be repositioned, and there's normal wear and tear -- but that's it.

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