IT Trends | Feature

Wireless in the House

The 2010-2011 school year brought with it brand new WiFi access to residence halls and other buildings at Springfield College. CIO Dann Davis described the overhaul as quick and painless and said his school is now focusing on using the network to layer in new technologies while keeping an eye on potential security threats.

When Springfield College's 2,000 resident students arrived on the school's Springfield, MA campus for the fall semester, they got a nice surprise: Over the summer, all of the institution's residence halls--along with other areas of the campus--had been equipped with 802.11n wireless Internet access.

Danny Davis, CIO, said the initiative has been on his IT team's agenda for several years and was formally launched when he came onboard in May 2010. "The college had looked at wireless and knew there was a demand for it from the student population," Davis explained. "Today's students use laptops and want the flexibility to be able to move around and use their devices without having to tether themselves to a wall outlet."

A Quick and Effective Rollout
Davis said Springfield College's senior administration supported the initiative but wanted to see a comprehensive plan outlining the move from wired to wireless access in the dorms. "We put a plan together pretty quickly," said Davis. "The catalyst for the project was the students and their needs, so we focused on those points and got approval to go ahead with the initiative."

As it happened, the college was already in a "pretty good position" in terms of Internet access infrastructure, said Davis. The institution had revitalized its cable television network several years prior, he said, and "pulled in some [Cat-5] lines in the process."

The college also had the necessary networking-switching equipment in place and required just a few new Cat-5 and Cat-6 lines to be connected to new access points across its campus. Davis said existing routers were assessed for their usage levels, with some being reallocated to the residence halls. "We took existing areas that were underutilized," he said, "and used those exiting facilities to bring up the new WiFi capabilities."

Wireless access in residence halls now serve the full range of WiFi electronic communications devices, such as iPads, iPhones, laptop computers, cell phones, and other technologies. Students can register an unlimited number of devices. "We really don't mind what type of device they're using because these dorms are their homes," said Davis. "That's how we look at it."

For students who are using desktops, the residence halls' wired access points were left intact. So far, Davis said, reaction to the WiFi access has been positive, with anywhere from 70 percent to 85 percent of the students using it. "We've already received a significant amount of positive feedback from students who are back on campus," said Davis.

In all, the initiative took about six weeks to complete and posed few challenges for the school's IT team. Additional wireless zones on campus include Cheney Dining Hall, Schoo-Bemis Science Center, the Wellness and Recreation Complex, Babson Library, the Richard B. Flynn Campus Union, and the foyer of the Allied Health Sciences Center.

Security Concerns
The move from a wired to a WiFi Internet platform did bring up some issues among users, said Davis, who added that a few of them were concerned about the new system's "open" environment. "It was a bit of a cultural shift and required new anti-virus and spam filtering software," said Davis. "We were proactive about putting those elements in place, knowing that we not only need to provide access, but we also have to protect the users."

Davis said the school has taken other steps to ensure that students don't download spyware and viruses when surfing the Web on the WiFi network, which is encrypted and requires registration and a password to access. "With federal mandates [governing] issues like identify theft and protection," said Davis, "we are taking great strides to make sure we're safeguarding users on all fronts."

Davis and his team are also paying attention to issues like iPad security, a concern that has many colleges up in arms over whether to allow the devices on their networks. "We've followed that debate closely, but haven't settled on a particular stance or solution at this time," said Davis. "We want and expect our wireless networking to be as secure as possible, regardless of the platforms. We have a couple of iPads using our networking and haven't had any problems with them."

The Future Is Layered
Looking to the future, Davis said the school's 802.11n WiFi system is well equipped to handle growth in student population and residence halls. It will also be able to accommodate a possible move to a virtualized computing environment--an initiative that Springfield College is looking to implement "in the near term," according to Davis.

"We built this network with the goal of being able to layer other elements on top of it, including new and evolving technologies," said Davis, whose IT team is working on several other initiatives right now, including a new college admissions system. "We have a lot going on right now, and will be introducing even more technology as the school year progresses."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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