March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 09.04

Capitol Convenience

A global university transforms its campus into a wireless world.
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By Bryan Pedersen




Colleges and universities in the United States have long embraced technology, especially of the silicon, bits and bytes variety. And why shouldn’t this exuberance exist? Parents and students expect—if not demand—the latest technology when it comes to computing and Internet access. There’s nothing more daunting than being unable to access online reference materials, research Web sites for a term paper or perhaps file-swap the Billboard 100 from the convenience of a student’s dorm room.

American University, a fixture in Washington, D.C., since the late 1800s, prides itself on its up-to-date technology with bragging rights to a 75-acre campus entirely covered by wireless Internet access. And it’s not just for show. According to Carl Whitman, executive director of e-operations for the school, “At least 500 to 600 students are logged on at any one time.” Not bad for a school composed of 5,870 undergrads. But the nation’s capitol is a dynamic place, and students can spend as much time off campus as on. “It’s pretty common for students of any discipline to be downtown,” says Whitman.

Aside from wanting to provide students with greater coverage, they had another problem on their hands: visitors had no way of accessing the network without compromising its security. The existing wireless network required encryption and password access—meaning guests were the designated drivers at this wireless party, unable to take advantage of the 100 percent coverage the campus provided. The school needed something else, and that’s where its long-standing relationship with T-Mobile came into play.

One Plus One Makes Three

The university had already been using T-Mobile to deliver cellular communications for faculty, staff and students. And as you may know: T-Mobile, in addition to Zeta-Jones fame, is known for operating the largest commercial Wi-Fi network in the United States. A mutually beneficial arrangement was struck—American University would be provided with a virtual network overlaying its own infrastructure at no cost, and in turn, the school would offer students the option of signing up for T-Mobile HotSpot service off campus at a 25 percent discount. The solution allowed the school to achieve both its goals—by having the T-Mobile service overlap its own, American could offer its students affordable wireless access, on campus and off, and guests could access the network while still keeping it secure.

A New Class

Going to college and setting up hot spot access was a first for T-Mobile. Instead of entering into a similar business environment and building the network from the ground up, T-Mobile was able to leverage the existing infrastructure of the campus, which consisted of Cisco routers and switches spread across 40-plus buildings—all told, there were 9,000 ports. American’s staff collaborated with T-Mobile and, working together, the entire hot spot was set up within a few weeks.

This new type of engagement figures to be a part of T-Mobile’s future strategy for targeting college or corporate campuses. “Enterprise IT managers tell us they want public Wi-Fi at their facilities for visitors,” says Joe Sims, VP and general manager for T-Mobile HotSpot. “But instead of opening the enterprise WLAN, they want a separately operated Wi-Fi network, and that’s where we come in.”

American University has entrusted all administrative tasks to T-Mobile, which is also responsible for all customer service and trouble-shooting issues and ensuring Internet access. To solve the wireless security issues surrounding visitors, the school is now able to issue free one-day passes to visitors.

Students on the Go

American’s location in a major city means students stray from campus more often than in a rural setting, but with HotSpot access they can still check e-mail, browse course Web sites and access other online, course-relevant materials. “There is an emphasis to use it downtown and during internships,” says Whitman.

All told, the University was able to achieve all its goals with no costs incurred other than the two to three weeks’ worth of time the IT team spent helping T-Mobile implement the deployment, and there will be no costs to maintain the service.

To students, a strong selling point for American University is that it’s the first and only campus in the United States to offer both off and on campus wireless access. T-Mobile has plans to replicate this model elsewhere, and other hot spot providers will be joining the fray—but for the time being, American can enjoy its singular status.•
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