Networking & Wireless | Feature

WiFi Overhaul

What do you get when you cross students' expectations for ubiquitous, high-performance wireless network access with stone and iron buildings constructed in the early-1900s? You wind up with a "harsh" WiFi environment where thick walls and ancient construction methods thwart attempts to create an all-access environment.

That's exactly what Connecticut College of New London, CT was dealing with in 2009. Situated on the southern New England coast, this private, liberal arts college had an existing wired network on campus, but was looking to expand its coverage, add WiFi to the mix, and "build for the future," according to Bruce Carpenter, director of technical support.

Building for the (Not-Too-Distant) Future
"We noticed that students were arriving on campus with smart phones and laptops and knew that we had to accommodate their need for wireless Internet access for those devices," said Carpenter. "We also wanted to be able to accommodate those users three to five years down the line, not just today."

Carpenter, who estimated that 65 percent of Connecticut College's students tote "some type of wireless device," said that to remain competitive when recruiting those pupils, the institution needed to install a WiFi system in its residence halls. "Students who are applying for college are looking for these types of amenities," said Carpenter.

After exploring its available WiFi options, the college invited several IT vendors to visit and demonstrate how their networks would work on campus. Based on those visits, Carpenter and his team came up with an estimated project cost, wrote up an RFP, and sent it out to "all of the major wireless vendors," he said.

Key criteria during the selection process included network stability, dependability and scalability for future growth. After reviewing and testing the responses, and getting input from outside consultants, Connecticut College chose a solution from Aruba Networks. The rollout complemented an existing setup that includes 100 Cisco wireless access points (WAPs) that cover the school's academic and administrative buildings, and all common areas.

Lee Hisle, vice president for information services and college librarian, said the institution used a creative approach to funding the wireless implementation. "We moved over to Google Apps for Education's free hosted e-mail (Gmail), and used the savings generated by that switch to pay for the entire wireless implementation," said Hisle. "It covered both the capital expenditure for the wireless network and the lease of the wireless access points."

Dealing with WiFi-Unfriendly Construction
With its vendor selected and the project funded, Connecticut College faced a major obstacle in delivering WiFi to students in their dorm rooms: early-1900s construction that was not wireless-friendly.

"This isn't your typical dorm construction we're talking about," explained Carpenter. "There was a lot of stone, granite, and steel, none of which made for an easy wireless installation."

To break through those robust materials and still stick to its goal of providing 15 Mbps service across all of the residence halls, Carpenter said, the 270 wireless access points (installed in the halls and in the library) had to be carefully positioned.

"The tricky part was locating those WAPs," said Carpenter, "and making sure that each of them provided the best possible coverage."

The circa-1900s dorms presented more challenges for the institution's IT team. In one case, for example, the dorm room numbers on the floor plans no longer matched the room numbers on the doors themselves. The mistake caused one of the installers to incorrectly locate an access point. Out of 270 access points, the misplaced AP created a single coverage hole. The school caught the mistake, but not before an affected student and his parents raised a complaint that progressed all the way to the provost's office.

Taking It to the Classrooms
Like many institutions of higher education, Connecticut College has learned that while WiFi is openly embraced by today's youth, it can be somewhat of a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to classroom use. On campus, individual faculty members can choose whether or not they want wireless access in their classrooms, said Hisle, who pointed out that "not all professors are enthralled with the idea" of students using WiFi while in class.

"Some offer it, and some don't," said Hisle. "We respect the desires of those faculty members who don't want it in their classrooms; it's by choice."

One group that has embraced the WiFi movement is the institution's biology department, which as part of a construction renovation will soon be "fully covered by wireless," according to Carpenter.

Connecticut College is also in the middle of what Carpenter called a "classroom improvement program."

So far, 16 of a total of 34 classrooms have been upgraded to include high-tech features like advanced sound systems, DVD display technology, and furniture that allows for improved interactions among students and professors.

"This is a big, ongoing project for us," said Carpenter. "We're not just adding projectors to the ceilings. We're completely overhauling the classrooms to accommodate today's technology."

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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