Wireless Island

Manteo, N.C.'s ThinkPad Learning Project equipped middle- and high-school students with notebooks preloaded with educational software, and gave students' families free wireless Internet access.

by / June 15, 2005
To assess the educational impact of 1-to-1 computing in a home setting, and to create experience that can be applied in other North Carolina communities and across the United States, Manteo, N.C., launched its ThinkPad Learning Project.

Situated on a small island off the North Carolina coast, Manteo's primary economy is tourism, said Mayor John Wilson. Because the local government thought visitors would like to check their e-mail, Wilson said they worked to make the town's public docks, boardwalks and parks wireless, and from there decided to make the whole town wireless.

Education Donation
While working to make the city wireless, a schoolteacher approached town officials, telling them about the numerous children in town who attend county schools, but are handicapped by their lack of home computers. "We started asking if somebody would like to donate some computers so our children would have equal opportunity," Wilson said. "We asked Charter Communications, who was making the town wireless, if they would donate free wireless unlimited access to our children, and they agreed."

After about a year of interviewing and talking to various wireless providers, Wilson said Charter Communications, the town's local cable TV company, was the last group to approach Manteo officials. "When they heard about our wish to provide computers to our children, they volunteered to make the entire town wireless at no cost to the taxpayer," he said, adding that while Charter showed tremendous goodwill, the company will gain financially as well. "We're providing free wireless Internet access for up to 30 minutes a day to anybody in town at any time. If you want unlimited wireless access in your business or house, you can buy that for a monthly fee. It's only the children who are getting the free unlimited access."

While Charter hasn't started selling service yet, Wilson said he understands the residential access will likely be around $19.95 per month.

In addition, VitalSource Technologies, which provides educational hardware, contributed a library for each computer -- more than 3,400 works of philosophy, literature and history. "So in the end," Wilson said, "all children between fifth and 11th grade were given new ThinkPad laptops with VitalSource libraries."

Patching the Holes
There are still some glitches in Manteo's wireless blanket, but Wilson said it's being worked on all the time. "It's not very big, but there are still some bugs in making sure every house, park, front porch is working," he said.

Currently, Wilson said, only about 60 percent of the town's wireless is working, and no one is sure why there are spots where it works and spots where it doesn't. "Here in the office where I'm standing, it works in two-thirds to three-fourths of the office," he said. "But in the front corner, it doesn't, and I think that's just part of all the new technology and blanketing a town."

And while 40 percent of the town's wireless blanket is on the fritz, Charter Communications is hardwiring those children's houses where wireless is not presently working -- at no cost.

Positive Effect
The ThinkPad Learning Project is a study over five years -- every fifth-grader for the next five years will receive an IBM/Lenovo laptop at the end of the school year, Wilson said, and the impact of the children having laptops from grades six through 12 will be studied. VitalSource will also upgrade the student libraries on their laptops for the project's duration.

"It occurred to me -- and our board of commissioners here -- that no one ever questioned whether government should provide textbooks for public schools when we were all coming along," he said. "And we question why the same is not true for providing laptops for the children. We believe it is essential."

"It's a great control group here, because our town children attend a county school, and these are only being given to the town children," Wilson said. "So we will have all socio-economic backgrounds in the class from other areas in the county, and we'll have the Manteo kids all with their own laptops, and we can see if it really makes a difference."
Jessica Jones Managing Editor