A Future Without Wires?

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Wi-Fi technology - also known as 'wireless broadband' – returned to the headlines when a recent Panorama programme raised concerns over its use in schools and whether there has been sufficiently rigorous control over its arrival in the classroom given its potential impact on pupils' health.
Originally developed for mobile computing devices such as laptops, Wi-Fi – basically broadband without the wires – is increasingly finding a broad range of applications, such as internet connectivity, internet phone and TV services and gaming.

Its popularity, based on the flexibility and mobility it offers due to the lack cables, has boomed over the last five years, particularly in Britain. The UK today boasts among the highest number of wireless ‘hotspots’ in the world.

It is not only the home where Wi-Fi flourishes. Wireless networks also present major benefits for schools. A DfES survey revealed that 54% of secondary schools had a wireless local area network as far back as 2004. And its use is on the up: wireless technology forms part of many schools’ plans under the Government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative to rebuild or renew every secondary school in England within the next 15 years. 

Wi-Fi is significantly cheaper to implement than cabled networks, and offers pupils the freedom to use laptops in laboratories, gyms, libraries - even on the playing field. 

In addition, by removing the need to bring a class of pupils to a dedicated computer suite, teachers can ensure the focus remains on lesson content rather than the technology itself.

But it hasn’t all been good news where Wi-Fi in education is concerned. Although scientists argue that the technology is harmless, recent media headlines have highlighted serious health concerns over its use in schools.  This culminated in one MP urging the Department of Health to commission an investigation into the effects of Wi-Fi on children's health, and parents bringing pressure on schools to remove wireless networks until any possible side effects become clear. 

However, schools cannot afford to delay whilst the scientists make up their minds. 

Symptoms of exposure to Wi-Fi are said to include loss of concentration, headaches, fatigue, memory and behavioural problems, and even the possibility of cancer in the long term – though at present there is no conclusive scientific evidence to support these claims.

The World Health Organisation argues that considering the very low exposure levels revealed in research to date, there is nothing to substantiate allegations that weak signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects. 

The advice from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) is a mixture of reassurance (exposure to Wi-Fi radio waves is comparatively low compared to that of mobile networks - twenty minutes on a mobile phone call is equivalent to a year in a wireless classroom) and recognition that more research needs to be carried out. However, isolating the specific impact from Wi-Fi networks alone is not a straightforward task, given that pupils are also using mobile phones, or are around where they are being used. 

The negative reaction has caused a number of schools to turn their backs on the educational benefits of Wi-Fi in fear of potential damage to health. One school in Wales decided that parental concerns are of greater importance than the advantages wireless offers, and quickly removed its network. Others have started to follow suit, including Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, following an allegation that one teacher fell ill from suspected radiation poisoning.

The existence of safety guidelines should not be taken as proof that Wi-Fi networks are safe, according to Dr Andrew Goldsworthy, a retired biologist of Imperial College.  He argues that just as mobile phones have health risks, Wi-Fi networks, which use similar technology, will also be found to have long-term implications for users.

Furthermore, potential health concerns have sparked fears of future litigation over harm caused by wireless technology. Although at this point in time, the fact that it is not “reasonably foreseeable” that wireless technology would cause harm is, in a legal sense, probably enough to prevent successful litigation, the threat of proceedings remains cause for serious unrest.

And to intensify concerns, the DfES places the responsibility for deciding whether to implement Wi-Fi technology firmly in the hands of individual schools.  So how are schools meant to make decisions about installing Wi-Fi networks?

Schools are advised to seek advice from organisations such as BECTA (the British Educational Communications Technology Agency), and familiarise themselves with current guidance from the HPA regarding wireless technology in order to conduct appropriate risk assessment.

As is always the case, schools owe a duty of care to pupils and staff to take reasonable steps to prevent them suffering reasonably foreseeable harm. With this in mind, it goes without saying that specialists according to industry standards for network cabling should only install wireless networks, and that the system should be configured to ensure correct performance. 

The overall feeling, however, is that schools should continue to promote the benefits of wireless education, provided they can show they have adhered to current guidelines and best practice, until such time as conclusive scientific evidence emerges to support claims over health fears.

Vicky Lapins is an education law expert at Browne Jacobson. For more information, please contact 0116 976 6000 or visit www.brownejacobson.com.