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4G: Is It Time for an Upgrade?

Why institutions are making the switch to 4G
University Business, June 2012

Faster than 3G and not range limited like Wi-Fi, 4G is very attractive to campus administrators and technology users alike.

"Students, faculty, and staff expect quick communication wherever they go," says David Morton, director of mobile communications at the University of Washington. Upgrading to 4G is about participating in the expansion of faster broadband mobile coverage and reaping the benefits. Early adopters and experts reveal the benefits campuses with 4G are realizing today and how they are achieving them.

From a Distance: Video

The range, bandwidth, and mobility of 4G enable more applications in more places, even on tablets and smartphones. "We see faculty and students increasingly using video and lecture capture," says Morton. "Students are always on their devices, streaming music in the background while looking at captured lectures to get their assignments."

California State University, Fullerton uses 4G modems to videoconference between its campus, CSU Irvine, and the Garden Grove Learning Center, which the school has dedicated to Extended Education programs. The set-up allows an instructor and group of students at one campus to connect with students at other campuses. "All groups interact with each other in real-time using the videoconferencing technology," explains Dennis Robinson, director of distance education and the OASIS Center for Online Learning.

"Instructors get a lot of information from the facial expressions of students as to whether they understand the material," points out Walt Magnussen, director-at-large of ACUTA (the Association for Information Communication Technology Professionals in Higher Education). In areas with limited population growth, colleges and universities are using video-based instruction for distance education so they won’t lose enrollment, he says, adding that 4G is the most cost-effective way to get that instruction to rural areas. "With over 50-percent of the U.S. population in rural areas, 4G may be the only way schools serve these people with continuing education."

For example, California State University’s 4G coverage at its Garden Grove Learning Center is faster and less expensive than its T1 line. "Whereas the T1 offers about 1 to 1.5Mbps, 4G offers 3Mbps to 6Mbps and is basically free for the university," says Robinson. (The university receives a certain number of 4G devices free as perks from a carrier there.)

Where students have 4G coverage, they can connect their laptops, tablets, and smartphones to university web portals. 4G allows them to send large files untethered wherever they have a connection.

At Lebanon Valley College (Pa.), students organically use multiparticipant video calls for remote study groups over applications like Skype or Google+, explains David Shapiro, director of IT services.

And at Eckerd College (Fla.), reports CIO John Duff, "Our students use Skype for presentations as part of their international study experiences."

As for non-academic applications, Eytan Wiener, COO of Quantum Networks, says colleges can place security cameras with SIM cards or 4G modules on baseball fields or set them up temporarily in remote areas where students will be.

"We install 4G IP [web] cameras on buildings that connect back to video screens and monitors on campus," shares Andy Hulsey, director of telecommunications at the University of Central Florida. The benefit here is in not having to install additional expensive hardwired circuits to reach these locations with a signal. "We save adding a wide area connection and the monthly cost of $800 for about 5MB per second in service," he explains.

Mobile Office and Study Areas

Campus constituents are increasingly carrying multiple devices that together require more wireless bandwidth. "Fully half the devices on our network connect to the Wi-Fi network, or 3G/4G, and half of those are handheld devices such as tablets and smartphones," says Morton. "It is no longer the case where we see one device per individual as the norm."

4G hotspots are available for use on campus buses at the University of Central Florida.Carriers are addressing this phenomenon with small, portable 4G hotspot devices that connect up to five devices to the 4G network via Wi-Fi. These devices enable the personal area network in which students, faculty and staff can use all their devices in a mobile office or study area.

Where students have 4G coverage, they can connect their laptops, tablets, and smartphones to university web portals for registration, to libraries for searches, to coursework and content for their studies, and to email to send completed papers to professors. "This can require sending large files and 4G enables students to do it untethered wherever they have a connection," says Magnussen.

"Staff can do anything they would normally do in the office on our web-based systems thanks to these devices," says Duff. Faculty use the devices to connect to the institution’s Banner system, networked drives on the network, building control systems, Moodle, and other academic resources, he explains. And because the 4G hotspots are easier to use and do not require special software, support from the IT department is negligible.

Extra Applications: Safety and Disaster Recovery

Now that 4G is available, campuses are discovering additional applications and benefits. At Lebanon Valley College, students with 4G coverage not only receive emergency or other alerts when they are out of range of Wi-Fi, but also have the bandwidth to respond to them quickly, checking the college website or the learning system blackboard for the full content of these alerts. "Students are informed of emergencies and receive educational updates. The process is fast, elegant, reliable, and looks good on screen," says Shapiro.

At Cal State, Fullerton, a college of education instructor who teaches a master’s program at a K­-12 school was without connectivity for her students, Robinson explains. Now, she uses a portable 4G wireless router to provide internet connections to student devices for class activities.

Eckerd has a disaster recovery and business continuity plan in place for when hurricanes or other severe weather hit. The college had originally equipped 20 key staff with wireless air cards so they could keep working in an evacuation. "We migrated them to 14 Verizon 4G hotspots due to speed advantages over the air cards and the ability to connect up to five devices to one hotspot," says Duff. He shares this tale of successful communication in a weather emergency: One staff member drove with a hotspot in his shirt pocket while his colleagues connected and worked in the back seat.

4G laptop plug-in devices allow campus police at the  University of Central Florida to run on-the-spot background checks from anywhere on campus.The University of Central Florida uses 4G to police the campus and make its citizens more productive. "The campus police use 4G USB dongles on their laptops to check email for quick, efficient dispatching, and to run background checks on the spot," says Hulsey. These devices provide coverage wherever the officers need to be.

UCF also has 4G hotspots on privately contracted buses that serve the campus and surrounding areas with free transportation. "Students, faculty, and staff can connect with their devices and work while taking advantage of a free bus ride," Hulsey says.

Coaxing 4G Along

With multiple carriers in competition in the relatively new 4G space, it is easier to get one or two of them to increase coverage on campus, Morton explains. In this environment, schools are forming strategic carrier alliances to help the process along.

For example, institutions can partner with carriers to add technologies such as distributed antenna systems (DAS) to spread the signal from a cell site more evenly around buildings on campus. "It can be an expensive proposition getting carriers to pay for DAS in whole or in part," Morton says. The school has to work with the carrier, or a third-party that specializes in putting up cell sites or DAS systems, to make sure it is good for the carrier and its business.

To do that, the school has to address issues such as the cost of a carrier laying fiber or other backhaul connectivity to get quicker wired support out to the faster cell sites, Morton says.

Lebanon Valley College addressed this issue by offering Verizon and T-Mobile its empty conduits between and within buildings to run wires to their new cellular antennas. "By allowing them to use our conduits, there is virtually no disruption to our campus, and it is less expensive for them so they can install their antennas faster," explains Shapiro.

Most campuses have some means to attract 4G carriers. UCF has licenses from the FCC for wireless spectrum in the 2.5GHz band as part of an agreement between higher education and the FCC to provide spectrum for such institutions, according to Hulsey.This is the research Educational Broadband System, or EBS. The university leases some of its EBS bandwidth back to Clear to use for 4G and receives 200 4G routers, hotspots called Clear Spots, and USB dongles with connectivity at no charge, Hulsey explains. Lebanon Valley and Verizon split the cost of an on-site generator that powers its building and Verizon’s equipment, realizing savings and benefits for both parties. The college has no financial investment in Verizon’s towers, Shapiro confirms. Verizon, in turn, pays to lease the property where they put up the towers and pays for the energy to power them.

Fast Wireless Everywhere

Increasing 4G coverage is a gradual process most everyone can participate in, bringing campuses closer to the dreamed Utopia of fast wireless internet everywhere.

"The ubiquity of connectivity provided by the combination of Wi-Fi, 3G, and 4G mobile technology is more important than any single technology," points out Morton. "4G technology and fast Wi-Fi speeds are enabling us all to do more, and access the information we want no matter where we are."