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Insider's guide to outdoor college Wi-Fi

As number of devices per student increases, so does the need for an outdoor Wi-Fi network. But where to begin?
University Business, October 2013
60 percent of students say they would not attend an institution that does not provide extensive Wi-Fi, according to a December 2011 Educause study.
60 percent of students say they would not attend an institution that does not provide extensive Wi-Fi, according to a December 2011 Educause study.

Students come onto campus expecting high-performing Wi-Fi not just in their dorms and classrooms, but everywhere from the stadium bleachers to the quad.

In fact, 60 percent of students say they would not attend an institution that does not provide extensive Wi-Fi, according to a December 2011 Educause study of 3,000 student participants from over 1,179 colleges and universities. To keep attracting students, higher ed administrators need to consider expanding coverage to all areas, including outdoor locations.

Not surprisingly, the first colleges and universities to implement outdoor Wi-Fi, around 2009, were those located in warmer climates. “Hotspots were placed in commuter bus stops and seating areas where large groups of students gathered and spent time,” says Sean Brown, vice president of Sonic Foundry.

(Related UBTech presentation: Wi-Fi for a Presidential Debate.)

Now, as student expectations and mobile technology usage has grown, installing or expanding outdoor Wi-Fi is part of IT conversations on nearly every campus. Here are six best practices for getting the job started and then expanding the reach of the outdoor wireless networks.

Understanding the basics

When it comes to Wi-Fi coverage planning, even campus CIOs may well need expert guidance. “Many CIOs think about radio coverage, or how far the signal goes,” says Chris Koeneman, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for ADTRAN’s Bluesocket Business Division, a wireless LAN solutions provider. “They don’t think about the level of performance as much.”

Koeneman says CIOs should select a level of performance—such as five or 10 megabits per second—that will be the speed during the busiest time of day. That, combined with user density, should determine where access points (APs) are placed. Spacing APs out based on a predetermined distance, such as every 100 feet, is pointless if the areas where large amounts of students congregate have weak coverage.

The “inside out” configuration is one Koeneman says CIOs consider. The AP can be placed inside a building and wired to a panel antenna on the outside. This method can save money—outdoor APs are twice as expensive because they need to be encased in weatherproof boxes, Koeneman says.

Wi-Fi bridging—which provides a point-to-point link between two APs back to a wired LAN—is a possibility, but Koenamen advises against it because it consumes a large amount of bandwidth.

“Bridging uses radio frequency that could otherwise be used for user access,” he says. “Therefore, to have strong outdoor Wi-Fi, only bridge when necessary.”

Koeneman also recommends CIOs look into the device limitation of the existing WLAN system. Before deciding how many APs are necessary, it is key to check the limitation of the controller, as the maximum number of users for all APs on campus cannot be higher than the maximum number of users for the controller.

Chris Boniforti, of Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., explains how the school created a wireless infrastructure with the capacity to host a presidential debate, which then allowed for additional wireless capabilities.

Spending resources wisely

Paying for wireless coverage within every campus facility is costly enough. So the thought of also needing coverage for outdoor areas is enough to make a campus CFO shudder. Koneman, who advises starting where there is the highest concentration of users, says some campuses have partnered with local mobile carriers. This works especially well in densely populated areas, such as stadiums.

“Building towers to provide 4G and 3G coverage is expensive for carriers,” he says. “You can offer to take the burden off of data sessions onto your Wi-Fi network for a monthly fee.”

This “mobile data offload” is something to consider at colleges and universities that already have strong outdoor Wi-Fi.

To help fund additional wireless coverage, Koeneman suggests collecting and selling student usage data. When students initially log into a campus network, the page on which they accept terms and conditions also could tell them that their analytics may be collected and sold. Koneman says retailers and market research agencies would pay for those analytics, and those profits could be used to fund additional Wi-Fi coverage.

Planning smart

When everything from squirrels to vandals can damage outdoor access points, each AP needs physical protection, says Brian Deely, senior director of product management for Smith Micro, a wireless software and services company.

“While APs installed underground are usually safe from physical damage, the radio frequency is then usually poor,” he says. “A better option is to place them under the overhang of a building.”

Chuck Lukaszewski, senior director of outdoor solution engineering for Aruba Networks, recommends hiring an experienced wireless integrator to design and install an outdoor network. The systems not validated by integrators often have coverage gaps, faulty installations, and weatherproofing failures, which are preventable problems, he adds.

“There is a tendency to think, ‘it’s just Wi-Fi—we can use the same design rules outside as inside,’” he says. “However, Wi-Fi devices such as phones, tablets, and laptops perform differently outdoors than indoors.”

Wi-Fi depends on multipath to achieve high speed, he explains. Multipath is plentiful indoors due to reflections from walls, but not outdoors. Multipolarization antennas can be used to create the direct multipath that allows for optimal Wi-Fi performance, according to Lukaszewski.

An experienced integrator will know where to install antennas to maximize performance and how to isolate building-mounted APs to protect indoor networks from being damaged by a lightning strike.

Having an integrator properly design the outdoor Wi-Fi network will reduce the likelihood of costly problems down the road, Lukaszewski says.

Installing APs based on population density

At an institution like Cedarville University in Ohio, which has a long history of encouraging the use of technology and placed computers in dorm rooms in the early 1990s, students are more likely to expect to use their wireless devices outside of academic buildings, says David Rotman, chief information officer.

Cedarville also uses the “inside out” setup Koeneman recommends, Rotman says. The APs are installed inside buildings, and the only components exposed to the elements are the antennas. “Most of our antennas are 360-devices mounted in weatherproof cylinders,” he says. “The antenna cables run through sleeves inserted into the building walls.”

The only time an antenna cable was damaged was when a building was being power washed, Rotman says. Training maintenance crews to avoid spraying water at the cable-protecting sleeves is essential for ensuring a long life of an outdoor Wi-Fi setup and avoiding costly repairs.

Wi-Fi is also available at Cedarville’s outdoor sports fields. Alumni and parents often want to capture and share big moments via social media with their mobile devices, according to Alan McCain, director of networking.

Rotman also says its important to address the needs of the university’s maintenance staff. “Our maintenance team needs to view work orders on their mobile devices, so we installed APs directed toward where their vans park,” he says.

For temporary events, portable APs are brought in and placed on tripod stands. If the location is not within range of a wired ethernet point, Rotman will use wireless bridging.

The team at Prairie View A&M University in Texas takes a different approach to addressing temporary Wi-Fi needs.

“We have an annual temporary wireless tent that we set up for our homecoming football game to allow guest access to the internet and other important network resources,” says Midhat Asghar, assistant vice president for information resource management. Guests know there is one central place where they are able to use their mobile devices.

“This has been very effective in showing the flexibility of our wireless infrastructure,” Asghar says.

Eliminating surprises

On the three campuses of the College of Lake County in Illinois, the average number of devices per student is five, according to Jim Senft, director of network services. That fact highlights the necessity of setting up outdoor Wi-Fi, especially where there is seating.

The most important part of outdoor Wi-Fi planning is preparing for the unexpected. “We have systems in place that give real-time notification if an outdoor AP fails,” Senft says. “Then, we can deploy our spare AP if necessary, minimizing disruptions in service for our students.”

Ensuring hardware is as strong as a specific institution requires will eliminate surprise costs down the road. Selecting a company with the cheapest APs many mean needing to spend unbudgeted funds on additional hardware later on if the user capacity was not initially considered, says Brian Witt, network architect for Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise.

Many outdoor Wi-Fi projects begin with a comparison of AP costs from different companies, but he says a “wiser value approach is to compare companies’ backhaul features, performance and capacity, and applicationfluency.”

Providing universal access

On the 406 acres of West Chester University in Pennsylvania, the institution’s 15,000 students can count on having Wi-Fi wherever they go. “The entire campus, inside buildings and outdoors, has wireless access,” says Trevor Beach, IT manager, adding that there are approximately 90 to 100 access points.

The project to make Wi-Fi available across the whole campus was started in May 2010 and completed in July 2013. The goal was to allow a student to exit a dorm, walk across campus, and arrive at an academic building connected to the same Wi-Fi session he or she started with, Beach says.

“Students do not just sit at a desk to do work any more,” he points out. “We wanted to provide all-campus coverage so we did not have to predict where they might want to work outside.”

Beach’s best advice to other college and university administrators beginning an outdoor Wi-Fi project is not to scrimp on hardware. A top-of-the-line AP that can handle a high density of users is essential, he says. After all, once users discover the Wi-Fi exists, many people will be using it all at once.