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Are We Covered?

With the first wave of wireless in place, higher ed institutions plan their next steps, boosting coverage everywhere from residence halls to classrooms.
University Business, Feb 2008

"WIRELESS COVERAGE IS NO longer a showstopper anymore," observes Frank Monaco, chief information officer at <b>Pace University</b> (N.Y.). "It used to be a big thing, a selling point. But now it's expected, and if you don't have it, the students aren't coming."

As at many colleges and universities, the IT team at Pace started implementing wireless coverage on the institution's network about five years ago, first concentrating on popular gathering places such as common areas, libraries, and cafeterias. Now the university is finding that with high demand, it needs to keep expanding coverage, particularly to classrooms and residence halls.

"There's a resource issue in terms of trying to expand to every classroom, so we're rolling it out where we can," says Monaco. "But we expect to keep adding access points and keeping up with requests."

Pace is hardly alone in its quest to become as wireless as possible. According to a Campus Computing Project report released in October, wireless campus networks are now present in about 60 percent of classrooms, a 10 percent increase over 2006 and a dramatic difference from 2005, when it was just 30 percent.

That number could climb even higher in the next couple of years. A recent survey of member schools by ACUTA (the Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education) found that colleges and universities continue to aggressively build out wireless networks in an effort to expand coverage and eliminate areas of poor reception. About 70 percent of the respondents in the survey had enhancement and addition plans in the works.

As students arrive on campus with devices such as the iPhone and gaming systems that thrive on wireless connections, they expect wireless to be present. And with many professors using online materials during their classes, academic performance can also be boosted with a comprehensive network strategy.

This is leading networking and IT departments to keep planning ahead, or risk getting left behind. "It's not like you put in a certain amount of wireless and just stop," says Monaco. "Technology changes and demands keep increasing, so you just keep expanding."

Similar to Pace, many institutions of higher ed have done wireless planning by starting with the most common gathering places and then targeting smaller areas such as classrooms.

For many IHEs, the use of wireless isn't just a competitive advantage, but a crucial part of their operations. "We've migrated so many services to the internet, so accessing the web becomes critical," says Jack Chen, CIO of <b>Adelphi University</b> (N.Y.). "In addition to accessing transcripts and evaluations, we also have alerts that tell students when a course is closed or if an event isn't happening, and that requires instant access." Adelphi spent six months in just the planning phase for its wireless, bringing together faculty and student groups to get their opinions about where coverage was needed the most.

Site surveys and vendor conversations were what helped the <b>University of Tulsa</b> (Okla.) go from about 125 wireless access points in the spring of 2006 to 585 just a few months later, according to Tricia Moreland, director of networking and communication services. "We did about a year of planning," she says. "We wanted to focus on the residential areas, because we had some challenges with students plugging in their own access points." The planning also included doing extensive research, attending the ACUTA conferences, reading white papers, and talking to peers at other schools about what worked-and especially what didn't, notes Moreland.

In other cases, planning involves putting in entirely new systems. That's the case at <b>Ball State University</b> (Ind.), which opted for WiMAX (short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), a still-emerging technology that provides wireless over long distances, unlike the shorter ranges employed by Wi-Fi.

The university received a grant in 2004 to connect three distinct parts of its campus, the farthest being seven miles from the WiMAX setup. "That's a long way for wireless," says Bizhan Nasseh, the university's assistant vice president for information technology. "And it does require more planning and preparation, but our goal is to be on the leading edge. That does require extra planning in terms of making sure it works with other technologies and harmonizes with other systems."

'If we're not changing the world we're in, then what are we doing? And wireless access will help us do that.' -Vern Draper, Ball State University

The drive for WiMAX isn't just about spreading a blanket of coverage over the university, but also about covering surrounding community areas, particularly local K-12 schools, Nasseh adds. The wireless planning is done as more of a pet project than a directive to keep up with demand, and the university is planning ways to bring university-supported coverage to homes and businesses as well.

"Our university views its role as more than just graduating people," says Vern Draper, Ball State's assistant director of computing. "If we're not changing the world we're in, then what are we doing? And wireless access will help us do that."

For some IHEs, planning does not involve a complete rip-and-replace, though, or even thoughts of completely going wireless. "We'll move to a predominantly wireless network, with a wired component," says Scott Ksander, executive director for IT networks and security at <b>Purdue University</b> (Ind.). "But I don't believe everything will be wireless, or needs to be. There's an important place for wired connections."

As with other types of technology implementations, wireless network planning is often multilayered, with a host of technical issues, challenges in terms of funding, and user expectations.

On the technical side, many IHEs are attempting to overcome problems that have cropped up with their initial few years of wireless coverage. According to the ACUTA report, the most common complaint about wireless networks is spotty or incomplete coverage, but also of concern are dropped connections, logon difficulties, and network speeds.

At Purdue, one issue has become faltering access points, which were put in four years ago. IT leaders had expected them to last at least five years, but the early failures are causing the school to push up replacement equipment plans.

"It's been a surprise to us to have to replace so much gear when we thought we had at least another year," says Ksander. "All of our APs are Cisco, and they're just as intrigued by all of this as we are. So now we're having to spend time looking back at our planning and implementation to see what might have gone wrong and whether we put the APs in a hostile environment, or if they're just failing."

Funding can also be an issue, particularly if wireless coverage is dependent on individual departmental budgets. At <b>Syracuse University</b> (N.Y.), a wireless pilot project done in 2002 sparked a wave of demand that still continues, says Lee Badman, the university's wireless and network engineer.

"Once it was proven, and everyone was comfortable that it could work, it spread like wildfire," he recalls. "We did common areas and dormitories on our first pass, but then after that, it got more complex because of the funding model."

Central administration pays for some of the rollout, Badman says, but departments also have to contribute funds for their areas, and it can result in a challenging coverage issue. "If a department has the whole building, that's easy, but when you have five departments and, say, two have requested and paid for wireless, you end up with a patchwork system," he says. "Sometimes, we'll get a complaint about a weak signal, and find out it wasn't put into their area anyway, and they're just picking up a signal from another part of the building."

One money saver that some schools are discovering is that purchasing new access points doesn't necessarily mean throwing out the older equipment. At Pace University, older access points are put in the residence halls, since rooms are already wired for broadband, and the wireless doesn't need to be as robust as in places where a wired connection is not available.

For some IHEs, funding isn't an issue at all, at least according to ACUTA data. Of those surveyed, 35 percent didn't cite funding as a factor in their rollouts, and another 24 percent noted that funding problems have slowed their plans only slightly. Although 28 percent stated that there has been significant slowdown due to budgets, no school reported that plans had to be shelved due to cost limitations.

Increasing coverage is a top priority at numerous schools, the ACUTA survey found, with nearly 80 percent of IHEs surveyed working on the issue. Fifty-two percent are focusing on eliminating coverage gaps as their main goal, while another 45 percent have put improving security at the top of their wireless to-do lists.

For many that already have common areas and classrooms covered, the next phase is residence halls. Increased expectations on the part of students is driving this type of coverage to the head of the line.

Increased expectations on the part of students is driving residence hall wireless coverage to the head of the line.

At Syracuse, Badman notes, some buildings are slated for wireless coverage because the wired connections in place are "horrible." First, the school made sure that housing for all 7,500 students was completely wireless. "We made that a very important goal," he says. "It's a matter of priorities."

Looking into the near future, it's likely that even more wireless-enabled devices will be in student and faculty pockets, and that changing standards for wireless equipment will drive more changes on campuses, such as more use of wireless IP telephony. "That would be nice for students to have, and be able to access Skype wirelessly," says Adelphi's Chen.

Although Adelphi is 85 percent wirelessly connected, Chen, like many administrators, is still planning for how to get coverage to that other 15 percent and to bolster all of it through stronger signals. "We have a three-year plan to just keep increasing coverage," he says. "With emerging technology, you never really stop planning."

<em>Elizabeth Millard, a freelance writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn., specializes in covering technology.</em>

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