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Data, Video Tsunami to Hit Campuses Nationwide

“Fourth utility” needed to manage wireless traffic
University Business, Nov 2011

Today’s universities with campus-wide, robust mobile broadband networks have secured an edge in marketing to technology-centered young adults. These young adults have embraced smartphones and are using applications that enable life on campus to be more secure, navigable, and fun. Apps are everywhere. They boost campus security by opening doors to residence halls, broadcast real-time audio and video to emergency dispatchers, use QR (Quick Response) codes to traverse campus grounds, and help students to meet up, check grades or assignments, and receive weather and class cancellation alerts.  The number of smartphone apps is expected to continue growing, limited only by the availability of the network.

However, with each new phone function or app being used, the university’s wireless infrastructure is being drained. Precious resources are being tapped from a wireless infrastructure that was designed to support voice needs, not the growth in wireless data capacity required today. Without a significant wireless infrastructure to handle growing mobile data capacity requirements, many universities will struggle to support the needs of their technology-centered students.

There are many challenges involved with improving wireless service at a college or university. For one, there is the sheer size. How best to cover multiple buildings over a large campus-wide space? Another issue is covering sporting and social events where demand fluctuates from extremely heavy on some days to incredibly light the rest of the year. Managing the network and the disparate parties involved can be a tangled mess.

Universities must start addressing these issues now, because this “data tsunami” is rapidly reshaping campus life. Consider the wave of developments underway that are impacting how students, faculty, staff, and visitors rely on wireless mobile broadband data and video:

  • By the fourth quarter of 2011, half of the mobile phones in the U.S. were smartphones (Nielsen Research)
  • Nearly 90 percent of college presidents used a smartphone daily in 2011 (Pew Research Center)
  • More than half of university students already use smartphones (Ball State University)

In addition, recent statistics show that more universities are dismantling plain old telephone service (POTS) at residence halls and administrative buildings.  The costs of maintaining, operating, and upgrading legacy POTS are seen as a waste of precious resources as consumers migrate to mobile “everywhere connectivity” that requires an integrated campus-wide wireless infrastructure.

The surge in demand for mobile data and video is driving university business planners to reach beyond traditional solutions for ideas. Alternatives, such as installing cell sites for each carrier or adding Wi-Fi access points, are options. Unfortunately, resource limitations are often an issue. Many universities don’t have the time or money needed to bring in and manage a variety of vendors to service these emerging telecommunications issues. In fact, the administrative paperwork and staff time alone often makes it prohibitive.

The DNA Option

Distributed Network Architecture (DNA) is a cost-effective option for addressing commercial wireless services infrastructure needs. Due to its technical design and architecture, DNA can effectively accommodate the massive data traffic ahead by delivering broadband wireless services and apps to the campus population. DNA works by creating a seamless and ubiquitous environment campus-wide, indoors and out. It distributes the wireless signal closer to the user. This increases data throughput and voice quality for an improved overall user experience. 

DNA solutions are comprised of an integrated network of wireless node locations on campus. Located unobtrusively on rooftops and streetlights and combined with indoor locations and antennas, the nodes are connected to a central hub by optical fiber strands. By balancing the outdoor and indoor networks, service is significantly improved compared to traditional networks that rely solely on outdoor signals. This smooth and consistent wireless environment enables smartphones and other mobile devices to operate optimally at lower power consumption levels to maintain quality connectivity. This approach increases data throughput and extends a phone’s battery life.

Equally important, DNA is open, meaning it is wireless carrier and protocol agnostic. The network supports multiple carriers, and all communication technologies such as 3G and 4G coexist.  The open DNA network is also scalable with the inherent ability to grow, accommodating future protocols and demands.

This approach helps to solve an institution’s first challenge of covering large outdoor and indoor spaces for scalable bandwidth. And because DNA can be installed to support what’s known as “sectorization”—the ability to isolate and move signal strength to where it’s needed—it can also provide carriers, such as AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, with the flexibility to power up extra service on game days and shift back to routine campus needs afterwards. However, deploying and managing these networks demands a new way of thinking.

The Case for a Fourth Utility

To fully address this imminent data tsunami, universities must think beyond just installing a DNA solution. Due to the complex technical issues and the large number of parties involved, a smart alternative is for universities to begin thinking about commercial wireless services infrastructure as a “fourth utility” on campus. Now that landline phones are being left behind, wireless distributed networks would join the ranks with electric, water and gas as must-have utilities.

Not unlike other utilities, a modern wireless network is complex and may be beyond the university’s staffing and/or capabilities to manage. That’s why, just like any other utility, the design, operation, maintenance, and future upgrade path should be deployed, managed, maintained, and repaired by experts in that utility space.

The provider of the “fourth utility” would be a single, neutral party responsible for the design, building, and delivery of a wireless infrastructure platform that considers the requirements, wants, and needs of the disparate parties. From the demands of the university to the provisioning and services of the wireless carriers, the open network provider would operate an integrated, highly-available network. This approach completely resolves management, ownership, and future demand issues. The fourth utility concept also relieves the burden of managing ongoing issues, because the neutral third party handles all contracts and agreements, 24-hour network monitoring, and repair services to meet the needs of wireless carriers.

The fourth utility also replaces some legacy POTS networks, relieving the institution of that burden and allowing reinvestment into newer technologies that will address current and future campus needs.

Looking to the Future

Campus environments clearly need a wireless infrastructure that can handle the growing demand for mobile data. Thinking about this infrastructure as the fourth utility is a smart way to streamline the complex implementation and management process. Benefits include:

  • Seamless connectivity for students, staff, and faculty
  • Better safety through alert notifications and emergency messaging applications
  • Flexibility for e-learning
  • Use of classroom apps that incorporate social media tools into courses
  • Potential opportunities for wireless research and development applications
  • Reduction or elimination of dedicated landlines
  • Incorporating public safety and first responders’ wireless needs
  • Operational efficiencies from various applications such as cloud-based tools and other IT initiatives

Institutions with a wireless mobile broadband infrastructure will be better positioned to support the increasing demand for the connectivity of their students, faculty, staff, and visitors.  DNA is an approach that should be considered because it offers a flexible, cost effective, expandable, and open network solution, enabling the network to address today’s needs and readily transform to address future requirements. This type of infrastructure will provide a clear competitive advantage. And by outsourcing to neutral third-party experts, institutions can address their campus-wide commercial wireless needs as a fourth utility where quality and availability are part and parcel to the operator.

Jon J. Davis is Vice President of Business Development, Indoor Networks and Michael Whitley is Executive Director of Business Development, East Region for ExteNet Systems, Inc., a company that designs, builds, owns, monitors, and maintains open distributed networks used by wireless carriers.