The Wireless Campus

By  Teresa Von Fuchs — March 05, 2008

Universities aren't only hotbeds of higher learning. They're also oftentimes on the cutting edge of deploying the latest wireless solutions. Indeed, research from IDC shows that educational institutions are ahead of the curve in deploying wireless local area networks (WLANs). Not only is this facilitating improved communicaiton among faculty and staff, but, in the process, they're helping to cement the mobile expectations of your future workforce. Here's a look at what some of the leading schools are deploying. Is your enterprise up to the challenge of giving your young workers the same level of service that they've become accustomed to at college?

From secure, reliable WiFi access across campus to the latest in wireless telephony, students come to school expecting that university campuses will replicate their wireless experiences at home. "The new crop of students has grown up expecting these kinds of technologies," says Fred Archibald, network manager electrical engineering and computer sciences, University of California (UC), Berkeley.

While universities strive to meet student demands, they also face unique issues around deploying wireless technology.

Paul DeBeasi, a senior analyst for mobile and wireless with the Burton Group, describes four challenges colleges face when it comes to deploying and managing wireless networking:

  • The technology used is unpredictable. As much as I.T. staff might want to, they "can't control what laptop/technology mom and dad buy their children for school." Colleges can expect that any variation of old to brand-new technologies will be showing up on their campuses and I.T. staff need to be prepared to support the broadest variety of devices. 
  • Security is a nightmare. DeBeasi says, "Students like to tinker and see if they can break the rules. They will install rogue access points (APs) and try to break authentication/encryption mechanisms." So I.T. not only needs to be versed in any available technologies, they also need to know the latest security measures.
  • Expectations are high. Students, faculty and staff expect pervasive coverage, indoors and out. This is no easy task when some campuses sprawl across acres or city blocks.
  • Network management systems need to be easy to use yet powerful. "There may be lots of wireless interference," says DeBeasi. This can seriously degrade wireless service. "Campuses need management software that will do a good job of quickly isolating interference issues," he says.
Like many organizations, universities are dealing with all of these issues on limited budgets and with limited staff to manage networks once they're up and running.

Problems Phoning Home
Despite all these issues, the most common challenge on college campuses is often plain old cell reception. Among young people, cell phones are thought of as a basic human right. A survey done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early 2007 found that more than 25% of 18- to 24-year-olds use only cell phones (no landlines), while nearly one third of those aged 25 to 29 have relinquished their landlines.

Phil Klotzkin, senior mobility product marketing manager in Avaya's Product and Solutions Marketing department, explains that coverage is a problem that campus faculty, staff and students have been dealing with for a long time: "Campuses are made up of large spaces. Almost no one at a university is at their desk all day."

Add to this the fact that many campuses have old, sturdy buildings, with thick walls and basements. Cellular reception in basements and older buildings can be notoriously bad, especially if the university or college campus is outside an urban center.

Even schools in urban centers can have issues with cellular coverage. For example, George Washington University (GWU), the largest institution for higher learning in Washington D.C., had spotty coverage in many of its buildings, especially in its underground rooms.

For the facilities department, cell reception was a serious problem; staff members had no way to communicate with each other when they were out on jobs around campus. 

Bret Jones, GWU's managing director of technology operations and engineering, explains that the university was forced to install special phones in certain locations to enable facilities workers to stay connected and receive their assignments for the day.

Sound familiar? "We have the same challenges as a corporation," Jones says. "We have a highly mobile workforce across three campus locations."

GWU's Jones sees wireless technology as a critical asset for the university in terms of productivity and convenience. The University originally installed WiFi access six years ago. And, though the campus still doesn't have ubiquitous wireless coverage, Jones says he plans to install about 1,500 more APs in the next two years, which will cover the entire campus by the end of 2009.

With WiFi access, GWU saw an opportunity to use one solution - a WLAN and a dual-mode VoIP solution from Avaya - to solve two problems.

First, the system addressed the need for pervasive wireless access across the campus. Now, when a facilities manager heads into a basement or a building with poor connectivity, his or her phone switches over to the WLAN, staying connected from anywhere on campus.

Second, the solution introduces dual-mode communication for employees. Every staff member now has a single phone number at which they can be reached wherever they are on campus, with the functionality of a PBX system right from their wireless handhelds.

"My wireless phone is my desk phone," says Jones. "I see dual-mode communications as the logical evolution of mobility...Enabling employees to use one device to consistently handle communications across public and private wireless networks is a big benefit."

Now that the solution is in place and the university has seen how cost-effective such seamless connectivity can be, new uses for the Avaya solution keep popping up. Jones explains that his staff is now looking into remote wireless monitoring tools and other productivity applications.

At press time, UC Berkeley and Duke University both announced their plans to roll out 802.11n networks from Cisco Systems. The Duke deployment will feature 2,500 APs across more than 6 million square feet on its Durham, N.C. campus. It's part of a $1.3 billion strategic plan and will serve the campus population of 45,000 students, faculty and staff. According to Cisco, the deployment is the largest planned 802.11n wireless network in the world by any organization to date.  "We see 802.11n as underpinning a lot of applications in the teaching space," says Kevin Miller, Duke's assistant director of communications infrastructure.

UC Berkeley is piloting its 802.11n network in two buildings serving its Eletrical Engineering and Computer Sciences department.

Meeting the Needs of the Ivy League
As an Ivy League institution, Cornell University is used to dealing with the head of the class. And it's no different when it comes to wireless solutions, which is why Cornell is already on its third generation of WiFi network.

The network has evolved from a first-generation solution, mostly available in campus libraries, to the current installation from Aruba Networks, which includes more than 1,000 APs  and upwards of 20,000 registered users.

Ed Kiefer, assistant director of network and voice engineering at Cornell, says that at any given moment there are 5,000 to 7,000 active users on the campus network. Cornell has three 802.11 networks running simultaneously: one for registered users, an open network for guests that only allows users to access certain sites or types of information, and finally a secure network for faculty and staff.

The university encourages, but doesn't require, students to configure their computers and other wireless devices for the secure 802.11x network.

With so much simultaneous traffic over its networks, Cornell was running into predictable problems: bandwidth overload and increasing interference issues. "Students use computers less traditionally than professionals," says Keefer. "It's not uncommon to see them running an IM conversation in one window, doing homework in another and gaming in yet another window."

Keefer adds that VoIP is increasingly popular among students, especially for international calls.

The university needed a solution that was robust enough to handle heavy usage, as well as one with some smarts that could self monitor, diagnosing problems and accessibility issues as they arise.

After investigating numerous vendors, Cornell selected Aruba's new 80Gbps MMC-6000 Multi-Service Mobility Controller solution and 802.11n APs. Initially, Keefer says it took his team members about five minutes to replace each AP, but they now have it down to less than two minutes.

Keefer adds that he was impressed with Aruba's keen focus on security. "We've just scratched the surface of the security features available with Aruba's solution," he says. "We're really excited about digging into it."

Shaping the Future
Universities are ahead of the average enterprise in the amount of dollars spent and allocated for enterprise-class WLAN equipment . "Despite the fact that most institutions already have WLAN deployments, the demand in higher education is still extremely strong," says Daniel Corsetti, senior analyst for enterprise networks at IDC. "Many universities foresee the need for more equipment to improve student networking and classroom management initiatives as well as reducing overall communications costs."

Educational institutions accounted for $65.2 million of the $801 million spent by enterprises on WLAN gear in 2007, an 8.1% share. Spending by educational institutions on WLAN gear grew 37% in 2007 to $65.2 million from $47.6 million in 2006, according to IDC, which forecasts spending to increase another 30% in 2008.

All this despite the fact that 92.3% of educational institutions already have WLAN APs installed, according to IDC.

"Educational institutions are investing in wireless technologies, hoping not only to increase student enrollment but also to engage students by using multimedia applications that are already part of their social environment," says Corsetti.

Though Corsetti foresees campuses facing the challenges of security and network management familiar to any mobile enterprise, he also sees more solutions becoming available to meet the needs of higher education. University campuses are models of what the wireless landscape can look like for any enterprise campus or community, albeit one that is populated by the most demanding users.


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