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Net via radio for schools group overstates its case

Can't bypass UK's broadband traffic jam just yet

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The consortium that's pitching digital radio to schools as a bypass around the UK's broadband traffic jam may be getting just a little ahead of itself.

According to The Sunday Times, the Department of Education and Employment "is negotiating" with the MXR Consortium to bring Net access to schools using Psion's WaveFinder DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) device, which connects to a PC. Digital Radio has been described as broadband's best kept secret and offers data downloads of up to 1.5Mbits/s. It requires an uplink to complete the path, but for Intranets, or walled gardens, that doesn't matter: making it ideal for education.

As the Sunday Times put it, "The device could be used to download up to 2,000 pages overnight... schools can specify exactly what information pupils receive, overcoming many of the security issues thrown up by the web."

But when we called the Department to check how negotiations were going, they told us that there weren't any. It wasn't their job to negotiate with suppliers, they said, and referred us to Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency), the body that advises schools and further education on technology. And that drew a blank too:-

"We have not been asked to negotiate by the MXR, nor have they contacted us, as far as we can tell," said a spokeswoman for Becta.

A Psion spokesman qualified the Sunday Times report by stressing that only schools within MXR's broadcasting area could benefit from Net-via-DAB. Psion is a member of the consortium, which was founded by record company Chrysalis, Capital Radio and Jazz FM, the Guardian Media Group and content provider UBC Media, which is preparing educational content for the service.

Becta tells us that it's down to individual LEAs to buy in their own choice of providers, although it was monitoring the situation. Actually London remains the prize for MXR - it's the largest region in which it doesn't have a license, and it's currently bidding.

The economics of DAB for Schools remain pretty compelling however. A WaveFinder device costs under £300, which buys less than a year's worth of residential cable or DSL access, and costs are sure to fall if demand takes off. But it isn't anything like national UK policy yet, so we'll charitably write this down to over enthusiasm.®

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