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Working Group Takes on Challenges of WiFi Growth on Campus

A new working group dominated by IT representatives from higher education is tackling the problems and solutions of running WiFi networks that need to support a dramatic proliferation of wireless devices on campus and in business. A major goal of the Multimedia-Grade Working Group is to encourage vendors to design and deploy "multimedia-grade" devices and equipment.

"The demand being placed on WiFi networks is increasing at a blistering pace," said David Morton, director of mobile communications at the University of Washington, one participating institution. "Handheld devices like the iPhone and iPad now account for nearly a third of all devices that are using WiFi on campus. At the same time we are seeing a mobile app explosion that has transformed how people use the network. Gone are the days when a typical user might occasionally check e-mail on a laptop. Users now do everything from streaming media to video chat to placing phone calls while mobile and expect all of that to work no matter where they are."

In spring 2010 U Washington documented about 78,000 unique devices connecting to its WiFi network. The most rapid growth has occurred among handheld devices such as the iPad, iPhone, and Android devices. In the last four-and-a-half years the Seattle institution has seen a rough doubling of devices every 18 months. These stats are reported in "A Blueprint for Multimedia-Grade WiFi," the first document issued by the working group.

The idea for the working group grew out of conversations between Brad Noblet, former CIO of Dartmouth and the group's current chair, and Robert Fenstermacher, head of education solutions marketing for Aruba Networks. Noblet suggested that "It'd be really good to get a group of people to start chatting about these experiences and put forth their challenges, their drivers, and also some of the solutions they have been working towards and suggesting things that could be done in the future on both the infrastructure side and client side." Aruba is the sponsor for the effort currently, but Noblet hopes to draw other vendors into the picture to support the work.

Founding members, including Brandeis University, Carnegie Mellon, Emory, Northwestern, and Texas A&M, among others on the higher ed side, and businesses SAP, Spherion, and Verizon Wireless on the enterprise side, met during the recent Educause annual conference in Anaheim and have continued their conversations weekly by virtual means.

The first whitepaper produced by the group is targeted at achieving two goals, Noblet said. One goal is to share experiences. "A lot of folks are in the midst of scaling their infrastructure beyond what we deem an 'access infrastructure,' the ability to get on WiFi and accommodate e-mail and Web surfing. [They're taking their networks] to the next level: dealing with streaming services and mobile services and better integration into our backbone environments, where we can keep things like quality of service, security, and policy authentication mechanisms more seamless and unified."

The second goal is to influence the companies delivering the products running in wireless networks, "so that the products and applications they deliver in the future are more ready to meet the needs of our infrastructure and the devices that are using our infrastructure."

For example, he explained, as more access points are added into an area to accommodate a growing number of client devices, they need to provide controls for managing the power to minimize interference with other access points or clients. "This is a two-way conversation. On other side of that you need to control power on the client. Today we have no mechanism for doing that. Aruba and Cisco do some nudging, some implying to clients that they need to do something: They push them to another channel. But there's no positive direct communication. The only way that gets solved is to build mechanisms into a protocol and make sure that vendors are supporting the use of that protocol."

Eventually, if the group can generate sufficient funding, it would try to develop test suites that would allow vendors to certify their products and ensure that the gear will hold up in multimedia-grade environments. Recommendations resulting from the group's work will be shared with and proposed for integration with the activities of the standards body, the WiFi Alliance.

"The group aligns well with what we've always believed and what we're seeing more and more," said Aruba's Fenstermacher. "Multimedia traffic requires a different approach to WiFi than enterprise-grade WiFi.... There's this whole new set of requirements that exists as you have the proliferation of tablet devices and powerful smart phones in the classroom that enterprise grade WiFi on its own doesn't necessarily address. Working with Brad [and the group], we're really trying to get ahead of those challenges, so we can help our customers accommodate these changes."

Noblet said the group would like to increase its membership among both education organizations and businesses. "The folks in this group are really trying to solve problems. They'd like to be in a position where they have a wide array of choices for the products they select that can meet the need."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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