Networking & Wireless | Q&A

Campus IT Spotlight: UA Ramps Up WiFi

University of Alabama Deputy CIO Scott Montgomery reveals how the institution is responding to the growing need for wireless connectivity on campus.

The need for wireless connectivity on college campuses is growing and is forcing IT departments to take hard looks at their current setups and figure out how--in this era of tight budgets and frugal spending--to improve them without breaking the bank.

The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa is one school that's had to get up to speed with wireless connectivity. Up until recently, UA's WiFi setup covered just 15 percent of the buildings on campus. "It was pretty limited," said Scott Montgomery, deputy CIO. "Things were changing in terms of the way technology was being used and delivered on campus, and we needed to get up to speed--and quickly."

In his current position since April, Montgomery brought to UA more than 20 years of experience in the corporate and government sectors, and is the former director of infrastructure for the University of Southern Mississippi. Here, Montgomery explains how UA is tackling its WiFi challenges, discusses ongoing issues, and reveals a few of UA's upcoming IT initiatives.

Bridget McCrea: How is UA dealing with the growing need for WiFi on campus?  

Scott Montgomery: Knowing how important it is for everyone on campus to be "connected" wirelessly, we've invested quite a bit of money in our network. We deployed wireless coverage to all of our academic buildings and residence halls and many common areas across campus. In total, we installed about 3,000 access points and as a result, we now have pretty comprehensive 802.11n coverage here.

McCrea: What went into the upgrade process?

Montgomery: We hired a third-party organization to come through first and conduct a careful study of our network and our needs. They surveyed every building, and then our teams basically followed them around handling the suggested deployments. At any point in time, we had a few teams doing the surveying and a few more doing the installations. Working together like that, we were able to cover a lot of territory quickly, and effectively.

McCrea: Did this solve UA's WiFi issues?

Montgomery: At this point, the only issues we're still dealing with are restricted to densely packed lecture halls and large classrooms, where we're basically trying to pack as much wireless bandwidth as we can into the smallest area possible. In those cases, I think we're pushing the limits of what can be accomplished practically.

McCrea: How are you dealing with this ongoing issue?

Montgomery: We're working to address it right now. We've put as many access points as possible into those areas using our standard approach, and now we're planning projects for those specific classrooms and halls that need more tweaking. We want to do a more detailed study on the issue, and perhaps try to upgrade the areas using directional antennas or special mounting equipment. I think that will allow us to put access points in the right place while also narrowing the range of those signals. That should help us get more wireless into a smaller place, but at this point that approach is still kind of a "black art" that requires much manual labor and testing in order to get to the next level.

McCrea: Is the WiFi network performing well otherwise?

Montgomery: Everything has pretty much gone as planned. Coverage-wise things are going very well. We no longer get complaints from individuals who can't pick up signals in the classrooms, dorms, and common areas.

McCrea: What else is on your IT agenda right now?

Montgomery: We'll work to keep our network current. Whenever new and improved capabilities hit the market, we'll be looking at them carefully to see if they are worth incorporating into our wireless network. There's a lot of construction going on here right now, so we're also focused on making sure those new structures get proper network and telephone services. Finally, we're upgrading our disaster recovery system by setting up a co-location facility outside of the area later this year. All of our mission-critical systems will be established there, and accessible in case of emergency and/or disaster.

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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