Networking & Wireless | Feature

5 Ways To Build a Better Wireless Network

College IT professionals offer hard-won advice on how to create a campus WiFi network for the 21st century.

Dennis Rush wasn't aware of the wireless mess that was waiting for him when he came onboard as director of enterprise systems at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY in January 2010. He quickly learned that his predecessor had run into difficulties transforming the college's IT department into the "world-class operation that he envisioned," said Rush.

The campus WiFi system was in especially bad shape. "Because of the wireless modifications, the residence hall wireless network was a mess of interference and conflicting access points," recalled Rush. "Students essentially had either no service or unreliable service. By the time we realized that it wasn't a few cases but a larger problem, it was too late to undo the modifications."

Inundated with complaints from students, parents and even faculty who claimed that the students were using it an excuse for not doing schoolwork, Rush focused his efforts on the problem. "My network team scrambled to provide wired connections and did their best to tweak wireless equipment," said Rush. The process took about five months, and included the replacement of all wireless devices in Mount Saint Mary's residence halls.

Here are five strategies that Rush and his team used to ensure that their wireless network would be superior to its predecessor:

1. Don't assume your current wireless network provider can handle the job. IT upgrades and replacements frequently involve existing vendors, but in the case of Mount Saint Mary's wireless network, a new provider was in order.

"We tried to work with our incumbent network vendor, who assured us that our access points would work even though they were old," said Rush. "But when the provider sent someone over to try to make everything work the right way, the effort was unsuccessful."

2. Compare new vendors side-by-side. Wading through sales pitches and marketing jargon to get through to the real guts of a wireless network isn't easy, but that's what Rush did when selecting a new provider.

He factored in both the positive and negative reviews when researching solutions from Cisco, Extreme and other providers, and talked to each of them about "how they would provide their best wireless solution, with an emphasis on our three largest buildings, which were experiencing the biggest problems."

3. Ask for a "live" test. Unconvinced that any one particular vendor could solve his college's WiFi challenges, Rush then asked the providers for a "live" test.

"I came up with the idea of having each one provide its best solution right here, in our residence halls," said Rush. "That way, we could experience the vendors' best solutions in our real-world environment, where students could test them out."

The process allowed the IT team to see the fine details of each of the three solutions and "test-drive each of them to see which would be the best fit," said Rush, "both in terms of the solution itself, and vendor support."

4. Look for a system that can handle all devices. While mobile devices are somewhat standardized in the business world, the collegiate environment has become a hotbed for a wide variety of devices, computers, game consoles and other equipment.

"We never really know what students are going to bring on campus," said Thomas Sayles, Mount Saint Mary's director of technical services. "We deal with everything from Kindles to iPads to Nooks to iPhones, and everything in between."

To ensure compatibility across the largest number of devices, the college installed an 802.11a system that can also accommodate 802.11g and 802.11n. "We have dual-band 802.11n, which is the newest standard and offers the most throughput available," said Sayles.

5. Get users involved in the selection and testing processes. During the upgrade, Rush communicated regularly with students and faculty about the process, asking for their input and feedback along the way.

"We let them know exactly what we were doing," he said. The IT team held meetings in dormitory lobbies, for example, where students provided feedback on the new system. "Getting students to participate in the process added energy to the entire project," said Rush. "It wasn't just IT personnel in a back room somewhere making decisions; we listened to the students too."

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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