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Of Cars, Classrooms, and Bad Ideas

The benefits brought by wireless technologies are varied and
many, but there are issues of concern for different groups of people at every
step of the way.  Usually the advantages
gained by wireless systems of varying types outweigh the concerns, but those
concerns don't simply go away because the majority is happy with their new-found
connectivity. Each generation of technology helps to shape the world around us,
and it's a natural step to want to use more technology to fight off the undesirable
effects that come along with the benefits. But too often, fighting technology
with technology is not only ineffective, it can amount to expensive overkill when
compared to procedural solutions.

Let's talk about Ray LaHood, the current US Secretary of
Transportation. I don't envy Secretary LaHood for having to answer for the somber
statistics regarding accidents caused by distracted drivers. There are more vehicles
on the road than ever, and in those vehicles are a staggering variety of entertainment
and navigation systems, mobile phones, and old-school communications like CB
and two-way radio.  Many states have laws
against distracted driving, but they tend to focus on mobile phone use and lean
towards the "hands free makes everything good" mode of thought.  Now, there are rumblings in Washington about
working towards solutions that render mobile phones useless in vehicles.
Secretary LaHood has been quoted often of late, speaking in favor of such
denial of service technologies.

As a subscriber to a higher education discussion forum on
wireless issues on campuses, I recently took part in a spirited thread about
faculty members wanting wireless network admins to provide a "kill switch" for
classroom wireless.  Some instructors
invariably don't feel that they can compete with the Internet, and so somewhat
understandably would like to be able to make the WLAN go way during their
lectures. I have been asked about similar capabilities for churches, movie
theaters, and even residences (like when the baby sitter is in the house) as a
wireless consultant.

It seems to me that Secretary LaHood's concerns are quite similar
to those of many higher ed faculty members, albeit the motivation to reduce
traffic fatalities is not quite analogous to worrying about students using Facebook
during class time. But the essence of each case is similar enough to warrant
attention.  Where LaHood wants in-vehicle
jammers, role-based restrictions, or alternative DoS methods, the professors want
the same in classrooms. And though at first blush both ideas seem worthy of
consideration (forgetting for a moment that the FCC really doesn't dig the use of
jammer-type equipment), the realities associated with each make them
non-starters while exposing other issues.

Back to the classroom- the arguments against restricting
wireless use in college lecture halls are many. To name a few:  remove Wi-Fi and you still have mobile
wireless. Remove both of these, and faculty members still compete with
magazines, books, and doodling. It's hard to surgically remove just enough
signal from a dense environment to achieve the desired result without impacting
adjacent areas.  Mucking with user
accounts in all cases is an administrative nightmare. And the list goes on. The
complexity to control the classroom wireless as envisioned by peeved
instructors just isn't cost effective (or realistically possible) when other
distractions remain.

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