Mobile Computing | Feature

High Speed Ahead

Purdue University is drastically expanding its fixed and mobile wireless infrastructure to support mobile learning, including an upgrade to WiFi and a rollout of 4G services.

As universities across the globe race to keep up with demand for more Internet bandwidth, Purdue University's CIO thinks he has found a way to get out in front of the trend. The institution is upgrading its existing hardware and rolling out a 4G network plan that will rely on Verizon's 4G LTE network as a backbone.

The 4G mobile technology is the next generation of wireless connectivity for mobile devices, including smart phones, tablets, and other devices that offer Internet access.

Gerry McCartney, CIO and vice president for information technology for the West Lafayette, IN institution, said the rollout has been on the planning board at Purdue for about a year and a half. It includes both an upgrade to 4G and a drastic expansion of fixed wireless service.

"We already had 3G, but part of our mobility strategy focused on dramatically increasing the number of wireless access points on campus," said McCartney.

As part of that process, Purdue will replace its existing DNG routers with Cisco 802.11n wireless devices. McCartney said the latter were selected based on their ability to provide consistent wireless coverage both inside and outside of the university's buildings.

"We have about 1,500 of the older 802.11g access points in buildings now,” said McCartney, “and we’ll be increasing that number to 6,000 of the newer, 802.11n access points over the next 12 months."

The Beginnings of 4G on Campus
Already in a long-term partnership with Verizon, Purdue didn't shop around for the 4G solution, instead opting to partake in a national rollout taking place in 38 markets.

Purdue already has one 4G tower in place and is currently constructing another. To use the new service, which went live last month, requires a 4G device.

"The first device for users will be a USB-connected 4G modem that looks like a flash drive," said McCartney. "Shortly after that, in the January timeframe, we should start seeing LTE phones and other devices, such as tablets, on the market. That's our expectation."

The 4G service covers the entire campus, plus the surrounding college town, according to McCartney.

Having that level of coverage is particularly important in today's tech-based educational environment, said McCartney, where everyone expects their devices to work 24/7, and from anywhere. "These days, not having a signal is an anomaly, even when you're out walking or driving around," said McCartney. "It's like visiting a building that doesn't have electricity."

McCartney the 4G network surpasses the institution's existing WiFi service, both in terms of speed and reliability. Verizon's 4G LTE average data rates on campus are between 4 Mbps to 10 Mbps on the download and 5 Mbps to 10 Mbps on the uplink in real-world, loaded network environments, according to Purdue’s initial tests.

Expanding WiFi Coverage
"WiFi is local; that's the trouble with it," said McCartney. "With the 4G network, users will have wireless coverage both indoors and while outside walking around between the buildings. That's a whole lot of coverage that we didn't have before."

Besides the clear advantages of faster, more reliable Internet access, the 4G service helps Purdue's faculty and staff deliver and use bandwidth-intensive applications and solutions to students in a more seamless fashion. Known for developing proprietary mobile technologies to enhance traditional college classroom experiences, the school's latest developments include the Facebook academic application Mixable and a student discussion tool, HotSeat, which allows students to interact with their classmates and faculty using Twitter and text messages.

Another new application that was implemented in 2010 finds students making instructional use of video in the institution's forensics classes, among others. The program and the material produced with it are bandwidth-intensive and difficult to manipulate on a traditional WiFi network. The new 4G access will help fill that gap. "To use this application solution, you have to be able to take video, deliver it and [watch] it," said McCartney. "You can’t do that on 3G."

With Purdue's 4G tower activated since early-December, staff and students are already developing new applications that will have a "measurable and material impact on learning," said McCartney, who added he expects more colleges to jump on the 4G bandwagon as the successful implementations are documented. "As a leading university, we have to keep up with the plumbing around here, and make sure that all of our services work as expected, and as advertised."

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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