Dialing In

At UCA, where infrastructure outpaces function, a new effort in wireless telecom has yielded far more than better service.

UBIQUITY ALWAYS HAS been the mantra at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA). For years, the school strove to build a top-notch distributed computing environment, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a fiber backbone, servers, switches, and more. Then, at the dawn of the new millennium, school officials embarked on a multimillion dollar plan to deliver connectivity “anywhere, anytime, to any device,” an effort that promised to establish a wireless network on campus and give all incoming students laptops to use on that network. By 2004, when the wireless network was finished, it was one of the most state-of-the-art wireless networks to be found at any mid-sized public institution in the country. Therein, perhaps, lay the school’s biggest challenge: finding a way to utilize the newfangled network to its fullest potential, in terms of both usability and revenue.

“We knew we had something special, but we wanted to feel like we were getting more out of it,” says Dr. Ron Toll, UCA’s special assistant to the president for Technology and Corporate Relations. “We were ready to get a return on our investments.”

The quest to better leverage the campus network began in early 2004, when school officials met with representatives from the Wireless Emerging Business division at IBM Global Services (www.ibm.com/services ) to discuss the future. Doug Boswell, Wireless Solutions executive for the consulting group, described to UCA officials how they could leverage their technology infrastructure to generate additional revenue. On the other side of the table, Toll, who also serves as dean of the school’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, sat patiently with school President Lu Harden and listened. The IBMers tossed around a variety of ideas—everything from wireless telecom solutions to innovative campus cards. In the end, the idea that piqued Toll’s interest most was Third Party Neutral Hosting, or TPNH.

As its name implies, the TPNH host model brings in a third-party, neutral integrator to negotiate wireless contracts with service operators, to broadcast their signal on the campus network. At UCA, that integrator was IBM’s Wireless Emerging Business division. Still, the TPNH setup at UCA didn’t jell overnight. First, of course, was the investment in the antennas: As UCA built out its antenna system in the fall of 2004 to provide for an entirely wireless campus, the school opted to shell out the additional cash for a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) that would support TPNH. Specifically, UCA invested in the Digivance Indoor Convergence Solution (ICS) from ADC (www.adc.com ). In all, the school spent about $1 million on the deal.

Technology integrator Stratum Broadband (www.stratumbroadband.com) did most of the technology integration. While the system went in, IBM teamed with Toll and other UCA officials to recruit wireless telecommunication companies to jump on board. Before the DAS was even finished, UCA had inked deals with Cingular (www.cingular.com) and Alltel (www.alltel.com ); by January of this year, the school was negotiating with five other cell phone companies to buy into the TPNH environment, as well. When companies sign up, they can buy as much campus coverage as they want, building by building, or quadrant by quadrant. All TPNH partners agree to pay a monthly lease fee to distribute signals over the DAS; in exchange, UCA permits the signals onto its network, and grants the companies permission to market to the student, faculty, and staff members who comprise a potential customer base of nearly 12,000.

So far, in a few brief months, results of this effort have been positive for everyone across the board. The benefits to Stratum and ADC were immediate—together, the companies split hundreds of thousands of dollars on the implementation. Cellular carriers have scored, too, improving service on campus and recruiting dozens of new customers daily. Even IBM has come out ahead: Since completing the UCA project at the end of 2004, the integrator has pitched similar “enhanced campus communications solutions” to more than 50 other universities and expects feedback sometime before summer. Behind closed doors, IBM officials estimate that TPNH could generate more than $25 million by December 2005. Even for IBM Global Services, the largest technology solution provider in the country, that’s significant cash.

Perhaps no one has benefited more from the project than UCA itself. While Toll declines to estimate the value of a standard TPNH contract, he says the school will break even on the $1 million project in three years, hinting that all of the deals are worth a total of about $333,000 a year. Beyond this, the success of the TPNH deal on campus has inspired Toll and his colleagues to investigate expanding the TPNH DAS to incorporate residents in the community. With the help of a dozen local and national corporations including Acxiom (a datamart system integrator in town; www.acxiom.com) as well as the local economic development agency Conway Development Corporation (www.conway-arkansas.org), school officials are gearing up to launch a new Institute for Strategic Communications Technologies to share the wealth of the ubiquitous network and explore new revenue opportunities. From here, declares Toll, the possibilities are limitless.

“Already, we feel like we’ve won,” he says, reflecting on the deal. “Now that we know we can do this, we’re excited to see what happens next.”

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