At 12th Street and Montgomery Avenue in Philadelphia, the country’s largest wireless cybercafé is about to open its doors to 35,575 Temple University students. Besides the availability of Starbucks coffee, Temple’s brand new $17 million TECH (Technology, Education, Collaboration and Help) Center will offer students and faculty ubiquitous wireless Internet access, 24 x 7 live help and state-of-the-art technology labs for video and music production, software development, architectural engineering and world languages.
The campus cybercafé is actually bigger than the Starbucks Coffee shop housed within the TECH Center. Opening this January in a converted 240,000-square-foot Bell Atlantic building, the technology hub represents Temple’s notion of Paris in cyberspace, a campus gathering ground exclusively devoted to wirelessly enabled student learning.
Besides 600 fixed computer workstations arranged in sweeping, carpeted spaces, the Center provides
students with ubiquitous Wi-Fi access along with 100 wireless loaner laptops to use within the building and several specialized labs and break-out rooms. The Center welcomes students with their own laptops and PDAs as well. Once their MAC addresses are registered with the Temple network, students and faculty are free to wander and connect anywhere in the building or on-campus.
“Up until now, there hasn’t been a central place on campus where students can work together like this,” says Tim O’Rourke, Temple’s VP of IT. “This is the modern-day version of the library. The center will provide students with the resources they need to work on team projects all day and night if they have to.”
Temple’s TECH Center represents a university’s commitment to serving students from a diversified, mostly urban population. It’s also a new phase in a campus wireless initiative, part of an extended network consisting of 450 access points providing connectivity in virtually all congregating centers at the university–libraries, cafés, residence hall lounges and campus walks, along with access on several of Temple’s branch campuses.
Although the Temple campus wireless LAN began as an experiment on a small scale in 2002, it now exemplifies a larger trend around the country. The majority of college campuses have already made a move toward Wi-Fi–enabled campus networks enriched with cellular coverage, broadband Ethernet wired
connections and, in some cases, wide-area wireless.
“Students expect it, universities provide it. Higher education wireless has grown tremendously,” says John Mullen, VP of higher education at Dell. “Most of our major customers have extensive wireless infrastructures on campus.”
Although no one knows the exact number of university campuses today with some form of wireless LAN, estimates now range as high as 85 to 90 percent, according to Abner Germanow, the IDC program manager for enterprise network research. “In the enterprise world, around 60 percent of all enterprises have wireless LANs deployed,” Germanow says. “In the educational world, the numbers are higher. Today if you don’t have a wireless LAN, at least in a library, you have a very rare situation.”
The growth in wireless LANs—whether university based, commercial or citywide (examples are the Wireless Philadelphia initiative and the city networks being deployed in smaller metro areas such as Tempe, Ariz.)—goes right along with a boom in the laptop business. IDC claims laptop shipments are growing more than twice as fast as desktops. In 2009, laptop shipments will exceed desktop shipments by more than eight million units a year.
The players in the campus wireless LAN business now include Aruba Networks, Meru, Trapeze, Blue Socket, Colubris, Symbol and the ubiquitous Cisco, which purchased Airspace, a switched wireless LAN company, a few years back. “All of them are different in terms of their management software, but they all have to work pretty much the same way,” says Craig Mathias, a principal of The Farpoint Group, a wireless LAN consultancy. The network specifications for university campuses range from the faster 802.11a (54 Mbps in the 5GHz band), to classic 11 Mbps 802.11b (Wi-Fi at 11 Mbps and lower fallback speeds in the 2.4GHz band) and finally 802.11g (20-plus Mbps in the 2.4GHz band). “But we’d never recommend 802.11g alone because it’s not enough capacity with only three non-overlapping channels,” says Mathias. At this point, given the large geographic requirements for wireless LANs and the need for wider coverage, “We believe it’s incredibly foolish not to put in 802.11a (24 channels at 54 Mbps),” he added. “However, the signal doesn’t propagate that far, although you can re-use frequencies.”
As always, wireless LANs are a tradeoff of security, cost, frequency re-use, range, network management and numbers of shared access points per group of users, among many other factors, Mathias says. Many university campuses use combinations of different 802.11 standards to build out their networks (Temple, for example, uses a combination of 802.11a, b and g), although the faster 802.11a is now becoming more commonplace. Some university IT departments also have gotten tougher on network management, preferring “fat switches” with intelligence built in to help centralize wireless management strategy. However, “the big issue today is coverage,” Mathias affirms.
In recent years, campus LANs have moved from a hotspot technology to something much more pervasive, according to Joel Vincent, director of network marketing at Meru Networks in Sunnyvale, Calif. “We’re focused on very large wireless LANs now—something up to 1,000 or 2,000 access points,” he explains. “Since WLANs are becoming a bit more mission critical—the early adopters were educational institutions and hospitals with mobile user bases—what’s happening now with voice over IP and more and more user access is that we need continuous coverage.”
The new campus networks around the country need architecture that “assumes a pervasive model,” Vincent continues. Aside from central network management, companies such as Meru must find ways to eliminate signal interference and cell overlap and provide architecture that creates higher ratios of users to access points. The method? An algorithm based on a proprietary flavor of time-division multiplexing (TDM), according to Vincent. At Northern Michigan University, for example, Meru was able to design a network enabling more than 75 users to hop onto a single campus access point at any one time. This allows the university to leverage the wireless network for student exams. In this scenario, “students have to go to class, download the test and take the exam.” The bid to optimize access point coverage and minimize co-channel interference is a big selling point to the university.
Tensions Over Security?
On university campuses, student demand for mobile LAN access and, to a lesser extent, cheaper forms of voice over IP, or VoIP, is creating tension between university IT departments and the constituents they serve. “Schools are struggling with authentication and security management versus academic freedom,” says Dell’s Mullen. Every month new reports flow into the media about student hacking, unauthorized copying and theft of files, including student social security data and denial of service attacks, among dozens of other offenses, he adds.
In-Stat analyst Allen Nogee concurs. “The requirements for campus wireless are quite different from those of wide-area city coverage versus industrial/business campuses,” he says. “University campus LANs are generally open and students use them for free. Citywide wireless requires a complex array of access points for mesh networking (without high levels of security). And company wireless networks are usually closed, very secured, only for employees.” A college campus, for example, could, in theory, use “consumer-grade access points versus business-grade access points with a lot more security.” However, according to The Farpoint Group’s Mathias, switched wireless LAN products are generally recommended for larger-scale deployments now found in the university campus space.
Western Michigan University—Broad Practicality
The struggle to find the right balance between open access, cost, features and standardized security controls plays out every day on college campuses around the country. Universities have different notions of how to accomplish the balance. For example, at Western Michigan University, a pioneering wireless campus that implemented a Cisco-based Wi-Fi network in each of its 135 buildings and across all 1,000 acres of its main campus (in addition to each of its branch campuses), open access and convenience remain primary objectives, according to Viji Murali, VP of information technology and CIO. “They brought in about 12 people for six weeks, walked every building on campus, and came up with an engineering strategy.” Murali opted to concentrate on the places of highest wireless demand, such as lounges in residence halls, libraries, study spaces and open areas (the individual dorm rooms are hardwired with Ethernet connections). To get stakeholder buy-in, Murali met with every organized group on campus, including administrators, faculty and students.
The result? A $1.2 million wireless LAN composed of Cisco 802.11b and more advanced 802.11a and 802.11g systems in some of the newer buildings across the 1,000 acres. The network features primarily data but also voice coverage—Murali says that besides cellular coverage, the campus is moving steadily toward a VoIP model. However, Murali opted not to implement encryption on the wireless network. Instead, she keeps mission-critical campus data and apps off of it. “Initially … we said we weren’t worried about security, but now we use 3-level security through our ISP (the MERIT consortium, which manages 14 Michigan public institutions), Murali explains. Besides an internal login and password, “you can’t get onto the wireless network until your MAC address is authenticated,” she says.
Although the university has experienced its share of hacker attacks on the wireless network, the network has functioned smoothly overall, satisfying some 20,000 students and 3,500 faculty members. “The wireless LAN is the one network we never get complaints about,” she says. IT even made the decision to allow the wireless signal to deliberately spill over into popular student places off campus. “We left some spill by design,” she adds, wryly. “We have some coffee shops and eating places, and students like to go to the Roadhouse, a popular restaurant, where they can still pull out their laptops and be connected to the campus network.”
Western Michigan isn’t alone. Ball State University of Muncie, Ind., with 20,000 students, a size comparable to Western Michigan, has also enjoyed a boom in campus wireless. The university enjoys a Cisco-based 802.11g wireless network (the first iteration was also built in 2002), along with highly innovative multimedia wireless teaching and programming. Wireless enables streaming video broadcasts of football games and other sports events “so that people can actually access their PDAs or laptops and look at statistics in the stadium while the games are being played,” says O’Neal Smitherman, VP of information technology and CIO of Ball State. The $700,000 network now features 625 access points and a huge uptake in demand. “We’ve had a 400 percent increase in the number of individual users who were logging onto the network at any one time,” Smitherman says. Ball State is extending its wireless network out to K-12 schools in the area and providing a whole new level of programming and rich media for educational purposes. “Making wireless available all around campus creates a culture of connectedness. We want to prepare a student for a world that we have to guess at.”
Arielle Emmett is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.