University of Georgia: Wireless Cloud Permeates Athens

A unique technological town-grown collaboration has begun in Athens, Ga., famous as the home of the University of Georgia Bulldogs and birthplace of legendary bands such as REM and the B-52s. Surprisingly innovative and prolific even for a college town, Athens' latest venture combines experimentation with entrepreneurism. The project, dubbed the WAGZone, creates a "cloud" of wireless access over downtown Athens, a 24-square-block area. Under this cloud, anyone with WiFi equipment can access the Internet and more.

The WAGZone project (so called because it is the domain of the university's Wireless Athens Group) breaks the mold in many ways. Typically, universities fund the installation of wireless access points and other essential hardware to facilitate the use of wireless on campus. This may be an all-campus initiative or a series of individual access points installed by various users and departments. Until now, there hasn't been a lot of enthusiasm from universities to fund and manage wireless access for those beyond campus walls. What's more, universities that have installed wireless access have done so to enable constituents to access the Internet, campus portals, and specific projects. But the goals of the WAGZone are broader than Internet access.

Scott Shamp, director of the New Media Institute (NMI) at the University of Georgia, says the primary goals are research, development, and access. First, according to Shamp, WAG and NMI want to learn more about how people use and live with high-tech tools. "We want to explore the relationship that people might have with wireless technology," he says. "Information has always been a destination—people go to it when they want to learn something. Wireless technology offers the possibility that information can be a companion, something you take along with you."

To that end, every course offered with the New Media Institute this fall will ask students to interact with the WAGZone. A usability course will focus on designing interfaces for PDAs that will allow handheld users to make use of the WAGZone. Shamp's lecture course will break into 11 teams that will explore what types of services people would like available in a wireless environment. A rich media production course, to focus on Web casting and streaming, will examine how Athens businesses such as nightclubs might interact with the WAGZone. Students will interact extensively with the greater Athens community to find exciting new applications for wireless.

One outcome of the project could be an influx of innovative, wireless-content development companies to Athens, spurring economic growth. Says Shamp, "here in Athens we have talent and a reasonable cost of living. The WAGZone is an opportunity to showcase what someone might do here." Sharing that goal is the Georgia Research Alliance, a public/private partnership dedicated to improving Georgia's economy. The GRA contributed $75,000 to fund the WAGZone.

But economic development d'esn't have to come from the outside. WAG wants the Zone to be a "sandbox" for ideas, a place where students and researchers can "build prototypes, experiment, and explore." There is an open-ended approach to the Zone that encourages innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit, which Shamp hopes will lead to student-built companies. As he puts it, "It's these 21- and 22-year-olds who are going to come up with the exciting new ideas."

Finally, the WAGZone is about access. Shamp and his colleagues hope that the development of the cloud will prompt other wireless constituents to adopt compatible standards, establishing interoperability between systems that will lead to near-seamless access as wireless use increases. At the moment, UGA d'esn't have a consistent wireless program in place, and wireless access on campus consists of a series of "scattered clouds." One potential benefit of the WAGZone would be the eventual closing of all those gaps.

For more information on the Wireless Athens Group, visit www.nmi.uga.edu/research/wag or contact Dr. Scott Shamp at sshamp@arches.uga.edu.

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