Networking: Wireless

Wireless: New and Improved!

Three cutting-edge outdoor wireless scenarios may be coming soon to a city near you.

Wireless: New and Improved! UPCOMING ENHANCEMENTS TO WIFI and just-plainnew offerings in WiMAX may seem like a campus CIO’s dream, but what can we expect as reality, and when? Three entirely different outdoor wireless scenarios are starting to play out; track these now, so that you can take advantage when the time is right.

1) Citywide WiFi implementations. There are now literally hundreds of cities and towns across the US blanketed with WiFi services—some free, some cheap. It’s easy to dismiss this as irrelevant to higher ed, but stop to think about students living in nearby off-campus housing: This service may be a real boon to those who otherwise struggle to pay for monthly internet access. (After all, internet access truly is a must-have for any college student.) One significant drawback: Citywide WiFi isn’t yet very widespread. The city or town in which your campus is located may not be a player for any number of reasons, including statute restrictions in some states.

Yet if your city is studying this technology, consider becoming a participant rather than a spectator. Your organization may have significant experience and assets to offer in the development of citywide WiFi, and in return, you’ll be helping out those off-campus students (not to mention attracting technology-demanding students to your institution). For example, the rooftops of your campus’s tall buildings can be useful antenna sites for high-capacity wireless backhaul links. You might have spare outside plant fiber the city may be able to use as part of a backbone, and you doubtless have expertise in supporting independent users. On this last point, consider that cities are accustomed to supporting internal users with fairly predictable needs: Police department users, for example, are generally well trained in the technologies they operate, and their systems and software are under the city’s control. Contrast that with a home user, and you can see why a city might want your advice about how best to serve that person.

Moorhead Public Service, an electric and water utility serving the Fargo- Moorhead, MN, metropolitan area, worked closely with Minnesota State University-Moorhead to design and implement a citywide wireless service called GoMoorhead!. College students make up a large part of the subscriber base. In fact, the university negotiated a deal directly with GoMoorhead! to provide wireless access as part of the room-and-board fee for students in residence halls. Off-campus students can choose from the same services available to all Moorhead residents: either a $19.95-per-month base plan or, if sharing a house or apartment, a $29.95 service that allows up to three connections. Student subscribers can use the wireless network anywhere within the city.

2) Large-scale WiMAX (IEEE 802.16e). The catch here is that in the US, the wireless spectrum available for WiMAX (2.5 GHz range) is licensed, unlike WiFi. So the folks who can offer it are those who’ve paid to own the spectrum: primarily Sprint and Clearwire. (There are a few companies working with unlicensed WiMAX with the intent to use it for backhaul, not end-user services.) WiMAX as a service will be delivered similarly to cellular service, using many of the same towers and backbone technology; that means that mobile internet access in vehicles will be a reality.

With WiMAX on the horizon, start envisioning what a fast, mobility-enabled technology could do for your institution and its constituents.

Why should higher ed institutions get excited about WiMAX? WiMAX can become another tool for your belt, offering true vehicular mobility, ubiquity, and honestly useful throughput rates. As we are all beginning to understand, today’s students increasingly expect to be able to access rich media wirelessly everywhere, and WiMAX will offer an avenue to do so (the first such in many locales). First, expect bandwidths of better than 10 Mbps, and second, the service will be available across much of the US. Sprint is making a massive, $2.8 billion investment in WiMAX, partly due to an agreement it made with the FCC several years ago. According to Sprint representatives, the company expects to roll out systems encompassing at least 100 million people by the end of 2008. Sprint has already worked a trade with Clearwire, allocating spectrum in larger cities to Sprint, and in mid-size markets to Clearwire. However, because this isn’t WiFi, today’s computers aren’t factory-enabled for it. At least initially, a special modem card will be needed to utilize WiMAX (similar to those for current cellular data services).

Another potential contender for the same market, IEEE 802.20 (also known as MobileFi), is far behind WiMAX. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is still working on a draft specification, and there is as yet no prediction for when a final standard may be published (most industry watchers expect the process to take at least two more years). Some have hailed IEEE 802.20 as a better wireless option, because it is being designed from scratch for mobility, and will operate in lower frequencies that can better penetrate buildings. However, it’s much too early to make any plans based on that technology.

In any case, with WiMAX and possibly IEEE 802.20 on the horizon, start envisioning what a fast, mobility-enabled technology could do for your institution and its constituents. For instance, if your campus has a bus service, riders could be on the net while on the move. Still, keep in mind that because there are as yet no deployments, there also aren’t yet any guinea pigs—er, pioneers—among higher ed institutions.

3) Outdoor 802.11n. Though not designed as an outdoor technology, 802.11n is worth a look for that scenario, as well as for indoor wireless. 802.11n offers backward compatibility with 802.11b and g, which is an advantage because it won’t require a complete replacement of existing wireless LANs; a gradual migration is an option. But while 802.11n will supply much greater range (about double that of 11b) and speed (over 100 Mbps true throughput), it shares one significant weakness with b/g technology: When used in the 2.4 GHz spectrum, there are only three non-overlapping channels available. If an 802.11n base station detects an 802.11b or g network in the same coverage area, 802.11n is designed to drop its output so as to avoid interference. Nevertheless, of the three options discussed in this article, 802.11n is the one you could implement sooner rather than later—and without relying upon a city or a carrier. Even though the final standard isn’t complete (and isn’t expected until March 2009), products compliant with the draft 2.0 standard are available now. Intel has already shipped the Centrino Duo chip that incorporates 11n, and Lenovo, Sony, and Toshiba are selling laptops so equipped.

At least one campus is already trying 802.11n on for size: Morrisville State College, part of the State University of New York system, has partnered with Meru Networks and IBM Global Technology Services to implement a campuswide 802.11n system later this year. Morrisville is looking to the new deployment to meet the performance and mobility demands of its user community, and provide optimum support for the next generation of consumer electronics, personal computing, handheld devices, and wireless applications.

In light of users’ ever-increasing appetite for connectivity, citywide WiFi, WiMAX, and 802.11n should give all campus CIOs something to ruminate on. One of these cutting-edge developments in wireless technology may have just the right ingredients to enable that long-awaited project or program on your campus.

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