March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 09.01.05

Making the Dean's List

WLANs on college campuses are no longer a luxury; they are expected by students and faculty alike. Have a strategy in place or risk a sinking GPA.
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By Eric Zeman




When my parents dropped me off for my freshman year of college, the list of standard equipment included: clothes, pencils, pens, paper, folders, loose-leaf or spiral-bound notebooks, a ruler, a good calculator and assorted personal items. If you were fortunate, you had a mini fridge (not meant to store beer!) and a radio or CD player. If you strolled through the dormitories and took a glance into each room, you might have seen a TV set with a VCR here and there, an occasional word processor sitting on a desk, and, maybe, one strange guy in each building would have this hulking contraption called a computer that took up far too much space. “That poor guy’s roommate,” you would think.

Computer labs were, of course, spread across campus, most equipped with the good old Apple IIe and a ragtag collection of IBMs and—gasp!—dot-matrix printers that took six years to noisily spit out one page. Using 400Kb floppy disks, you could bring your files-in-progress to the labs and perform basic word processing, spreadsheet and database func-
tions. CAD? Forget it. Only the physics department had a computer powerful enough for that, and they were pretty picky about whom they let use it (i.e., non-Ph.D.’s not allowed!).

With the advent of laptops, the Internet and wireless data, the story is entirely different.True, every campus still has a computer lab, but most institutions of higher learning now expect college students to arrive with WLAN-ready laptops. And they’re prepared for them.

Kevin Baradet, chief technology office with Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, says having a WLAN “is an essential service. It’s like having the lights on. You have to have it or people get upset.” Tom Racca, VP of marketing wireless solutions with Chantry Networks/Siemens, agrees. “It’s almost a requirement at the secondary level. Attending campus tours with my son, I was surprised at the questions coming from the students. They were not about how much access will they have to professors and research material. Without fail, on every tour someone asked, ‘Is there WLAN connectivity on campus and in the dorms?’”

As essential as it is, installing a WLAN across a university campus presents a daunting challenge. Most campuses span many acres, can hold dozens of buildings, have wide open green areas where students like to congregate and have a constantly rotating set of users. Not only do faculty and staff come and go, but hundreds, if not thousands, of students graduate each semester with a new batch following right on their heels. The legwork to provide seamless connectivity for all those users is no easy task.
Forgetting about the open spaces for a moment, consider the buildings that reside on college or university campuses. If the institution has been around for a while, it likely has buildings built during every decade back to the early 1800s or earlier, each constructed to its own set of specs. Dense walls and materials abound, numbering among the many hindrances to Wi-Fi signals.

Home to 1,000 of Cornell’s 20,000 students, the Johnson Graduate School of Management knew it had to provide wireless access to its MBA students and faculty. Baradet explains, “Students don’t want to carry wires, whether they be power or Ethernet cables. When 802.11g and 11a came out, we knew we needed to blanket the building. We brought in 10 or 12 Chantry Networks [access points] on a test basis for a year to identify the bottlenecks, fix bugs and tweak the software authentication on the backend.”

Baradet and his team ran into the typical problems, but time spent testing signals helped them provide pervasive coverage. “The whole building—two floors of classrooms and four floors of offices—is covered, though there are a couple of dead spots,” says Baradet. Atypical problems caused more of a stir. “The biggest snag we ran into was handling the end users, some of whom had Wi-Fi chipsets that were manufactured before the [802.11] standards were set. It took some detective work to figure out the nature of the problems students were having connecting and we were surprised to find it was companies like Apple and Dell. We had to pester the product managers at Apple and Dell until they provided updated firmware and drivers for the laptops that eventually allowed the students to connect to our system.”

From Chantry’s end, it was a smooth ride. “They are pretty spread out and cover a lot of area,” says Racca. “The campus is 750 acres and includes city streets. Since anyone going down that street could catch the signal, it had to be a very secure network. Providing security and user rights and privileges for such a dynamic population was challenging. Overall, though, it was great working with them.”

In the end, there are 35 APs in the management building and 300 campus-wide. Baradet reports that a fair amount of the outdoor areas are covered,too. “Students demanded it, to be able to sit outdoors and continue to work. The stadium is also covered.” Since the network was put up, 95 percent of students and 100 percent of the faculty use it to access Blackboard or the information they need. Log in is easy, and Baradet described the whole system as “pretty darn reliable.”

Breaking Tradition

Not all deployments go smoothly. Hobart and William Smith Colleges, based in idyllic Geneva, N.Y., attempted to deploy Wi-Fi in 2002 using traditional WLAN equipment. Covering the 170-acre campus proved challenging, and the deployment was postponed. Interference from over-lapping APs in the library and overwhelmed APs in classrooms were just a few of the many snags.

The IT team recently revisited the idea of Wi-Fi and chose Meru Networks’ WLAN systems for new residence buildings, a new coffee shop and new dining facilities that are going up on campus, with plans to add access points gradually across campus. Hobart and William Smith selected Meru because it could use Meru’s Air Traffic Control technology to manage interference, improve coverage and reliably deliver access for the growing number of users and applications.

Making the ROI Grade

So if WLAN access is an essential service on college campuses, how are universities to make money on the deal—or at least recoup the initial cash outlay? In the end, it comes down to being “just another utility,” albeit an expensive one to get off the ground. Most universities don’t break down costs on the tuition bill and show how much each student was charged for electricity or water. They do, however, charge separate IT fees as part of the tuition.

Baradet brought up an interesting point for universities and colleges to consider. With cell phone proliferation and the ease of access to high-speed Internet services like Skype to make long-distance phone calls, fewer and fewer students make use of the existing wired campus telecom system, meaning lost revenue for the university. Though many colleges have been bulking up the IT fees passed on to
students to help pay for these expensive wireless networks, they may not make up for the dent in the telecom side of the business. Creating a fee structure to keep the IT department in the black should be part of any WLAN deployment from step one, but don’t count on recouping those missing telecom dollars. They’re gone and will likely remain so. Universities will have to rethink their long-term revenue strategies and change with the technology.

What about vendors? Do not make the same mistake Hobart and William Smith did when it started out with off-the-shelf variety equipment. While it might be fine for Prof. Jones to run out to Circuit City, buy an AP and stick it in his office for his personal use, consumer-grade equipment will not pass through the multitude of thick walls in many university buildings. Providing seamless coverage in buildings will take work. Dealing with organizations such as Siemens, Meru and others that can cater specifically to the enterprise and have the experience to handle difficult deployments makes the most sense.

Smart universities will study their users and provide Wi-Fi access only where it is needed. Not every room in every classroom, office or dormitory building needs to be covered. Nor does every green space. If your budget is limited, start with buildings like the library, dining halls or the student union, places where students regularly gather to collaborate and work. Consider providing wireless access to
upperclassmen dorms before rolling it out to every dorm on campus. Keeping the number of APs to the minimum needed to get the job done can also hold down costs.

One thing is for sure, time—and technology—invariably march forward. For institutions of higher learning, keeping up with the times and technology available to students and the general public alike is not so much a matter of saving face as it is leveling the playing field with other universities, especially when it comes to attracting prospective students.

Now that the standard equipment for college students includes wirelessly equipped laptops, it’s expected that Wi-Fi will be available to them when they arrive.•
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