Wireless On Campus

The prevalence of the cellular phone has established the benefit of wireless connectivity in industry. Now, the ripple effect of emerging wireless technologies is being felt in higher education. As campuses move toward wireless data networking, educators are asking: Is wireless ready for college?

In the past year, wireless technology has gathered momentum as data connects to telephones and, conversely, telephones connect to data devices. From the Palm 7 to WAP (wireless application protocol) phones, the pulse of wireless data networks is reaching academia. Connecting all the mobile computers to the network for anywhere, anytime computing seems to be a natural and exciting idea. Still, the issue for most schools remains whether there is enough value in a wireless infrastructure to justify the cost.

Campus without Wires

The ubiquitous wireless network seems poised to revolutionize mobile computing in higher education. With the introduction of inexpensive and pervasive wireless networking, an entirely new class of super-mobile devices—from wireless telephones that can surf the Web to Palm Pilots, e-books, and personal messagers—will become possible, dramatically changing the concept of communication on campus. These devices must be connected to the network to be useful, and that connection certainly cannot be a wired connection.

Currently, wireless data solutions are most easily cost-justified for those areas that are too costly or impossible to wire. Library study areas, cafeterias, architecturally sensitive buildings, and portable trailers are some fairly obvious examples of areas that are probably more cost-effective to connect wirelessly. A consideration in providing wireless access for relatively small areas is in providing the PCMCIA cards that allow connectivity to users' wireless devices. A wireless infrastructure d'esn't do much good if there is nothing to connect to. Renting or lending cards is one potential solution, but supporting the installation of the appropriate software drivers can be a fairly high support cost. In the case of a classroom situation, distributing and recovering the cards can take up a significant amount of time.

Given the challenges, then, is a campus without wires practical—even in small implementations? For the university administrator trying to make heads or tails of the growing hype, the details can be overwhelming. The technologies are still relatively new, and as with any new technology, much of the debate centers on the nuances of the technical details.

Vision of a Wireless Campus

The benefit of wireless technology for the learning process will most likely come by facilitating super-mobile computing. For the same reason that campuses built nearly ubiquitous wired connectivity, they will want to build wireless connectivity. Access to the Internet, to vast information resources, and to other members of the learning community have all been made possible by the networking technologies of the past 15 years. Making that connectivity available anytime, anywhere is a natural extension of the initial investment. Soon, a multiplicity of small, specific-function devices will be able to use the wireless infrastructure to facilitate a much smarter and more robust communication environment. Personal digital assistants (PDAs)—devices such as Palm Pilots—are already in use in higher education; providing connectivity to them will only make them more useful.

Connecting these devices to central services such as directory, messaging, and student information systems will further enhance their usefulness. In addition to PDAs will be a category of devices such as e-books, tablets, and pocket PCs. Together, these devices become part of a wired learning community of super-mobile users.

In addition to the advantage of connecting the community of learners more completely is a substantial benefit that the administration of a university can attain by providing connectivity to places and activities that have otherwise been disconnected. Security offices, shipping and receiving, and those departments involved with inventory tracking will benefit from the ability to track items and activities in real time using wireless technology and barcoding—areas that have traditionally been fertile ground for cost and efficiency improvements in industry. In general, none of these applications can justify a wireless infrastructure of its own, but as a campus-wide effort, the costs become more reasonable.

Wireless will also be important for university telecom operations. With revenue from long-distance resale declining, investment in monolithic telephone switching equipment shows diminishing returns. Schools that are looking to overhaul their telecommunications infrastructure over the next few years will have to look at mobile VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) solutions. Multi-protocol phones may be available within the next few years that will allow a single phone device to be used on a campus LAN and then roam to a cellular provider when off campus. Integrated messaging that includes voice mail, e-mail, paging, and instant messaging will soon be the norm. Just as colleges have integrated their e-mail systems with their student records systems, they will want to integrate a unified messaging capability.

The Value of Wireless

In the narrow context of a wired data replacement, wireless may not be cost-effective at this point. There are certainly some cases where wireless is a good technical solution that justifies a higher cost—mostly for providing service in areas where wired solutions are not practical. But as a substitute for all wired connectivity, the economics simply aren't there today.

The IEEE standards make a ubiquitous infrastructure possible; economies of scale will make it practical. As we have seen with cell phones, the market for connectivity is one based on the fundamental desire of people to be in touch with each other. For a campus, putting the community of learners in touch with each other in new and meaningful ways has a particularly special appeal. Wireless is headed for college, ready or not.

Jay Dominick is vice president for Information Systems at Wake Forest University. (jld@wfu.edu)

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