College of William and Mary: Wireless Access Aids Displaced Students

Scott Fenstermacher

Like many educational institutions, the College of William and Mary (W&M) undertakes regular renovations, improvements, and additions to its campus facilities. However, as America's second-oldest college established in 1693, W&M's campus renovations often encompass special considerations due to the historical nature and age of its buildings.

Prior to the beginning of a new academic year, the university was renovating one of its residence halls when they uncovered an asbestos problem that forced college officials to postpone opening the building. Unable to complete the renovations before the students arrived for the fall semester, the administration scrambled to find temporary housing for 400 first-year students.

W&M contacted the Governor's Inn, a hotel located near campus, to inquire about possible housing, and rented half of the Inn's three buildings to provide students with temporary accommodations. After tackling the question of where they would live, the school turned its attention to preparing the Inn for 400 college students, with only weeks before the students were scheduled to arrive at its doorstep.

Equal Opportunity
Recognizing that these incoming freshmen needed and expected the same services and resources as on-campus students, W&M set the goal for each displaced student to receive all of the services available on campus, including W&M's extensive technology resources. To accomplish this formidable task, W&M had to find a way to connect the students to the existing infrastructure, which included the university network, phone system, and CATV. Luckily, W&M found they could use the Inn's CATV system and could forward the Inn's phones to the on-campus voice-mail system, but the challenge of connecting the students to the network remained.

"The network is an integral part of the teaching and learning experience here at the College of William and Mary; it's used for presentations in class, Internet research, e-mail, and much more. It is essential for all students—especially first-year students just starting out—to have network access to school resources in order to make their transition to college successful," explains Scott Fenstermacher, Network Manager for the College of William and Mary. "Plus, these students are our customers—they pay for high-speed Internet access as part of their tuition and fees—and deserve the very best in service and support."

A Temporary Solution
Unlike the school's residence halls, the Inn did not offer high-speed Internet access, forcing W&M's IT staff to find a way to create a fast, reliable connection to the campus infrastructure. At the same time, the IT team needed to watch project expenses, as W&M officials wanted to keep costs down for a temporary solution that would only be in place for one semester.

First, W&M reviewed wired options to connect the students. This option was discarded because the Inn is surrounded by historical structures near a restored area of Williamsburg, Va., where a wired solution would be extremely invasive, expensive, and labor-intensive under the time constraints.

The IT team decided that a wireless local area network (WLAN) would be the most efficient and appropriate solution, and completed a site survey to determine the scope of their wireless needs. "After scouting the area, we discovered that we could physically see the roof of a large residence hall on the main campus from one of the buildings we were leasing at the Inn," adds Fenstermacher. "Unfortunately, we could also see several power lines and a very active railroad track in between, which compromised the clear line of sight we needed."

Working with the Inn, W&M surveyed the tallest Inn building and discovered a clear line of sight to the residence hall back on campus. However, the school was not leasing this particular building, and needed a way to connect the two leased buildings with the Inn's tallest facility. To solve the problem, W&M centralized all of the Category 5 network cabling for each of their leased rooms to two locations. Then, it located a conduit that joined them to the Inn building, which provided the critical line of site connection for the wireless antennas.

Once the Inn was ready, W&M evaluated wireless equipment vendors. The university had previously reviewed wireless products from a variety of vendors for other wireless projects. This allowed them to quickly select Enterasys Networks' RoamAbout R2 wireless access platform for its reputation for reliability, security, and high performance, as well as Enterasys' ability to deliver the equipment on-site quickly.

W&M used six RoamAbout Access Points, three at each end, to create three clear channels. Each of these channels would provide access for one-third of the users. Installation of the antenna was accomplished by installing a portable frame on top of the Governor's Inn and "banding" another set of antennas on one of the residence hall's chimneys. The electronics were housed in waterproof boxes and stationed on the roof of the Inn, and the Ethernet dropped down to a storage closet where fiber converters were installed. On campus, the connections were a bit easier because the wireless antennas were close to the residence hall's attic, which allowed for convenient equipment storage.

Off-Campus Success
The results were outstanding. All three wireless channels came online two days before the students arrived and worked flawlessly until they were removed two days before Christmas. No downtime occurred, and the number of service calls received from the Inn was below the average for the on-campus residence halls. Despite heavy rainstorms, high winds, and electrical storms, there were no disruptions to the wireless connection during the entire fall semester.

"The students were able to enjoy the same resources and tools as the rest of the on-campus students. They could collaborate with classmates over a particular issue in their studies, check course syllabi for new assignments, and e-mail papers to professors. In addition, like many college students who study late into the night, the Inn students could conduct research from the comfort of their rooms, rather than having to walk across town in the middle of the night to the library," explains Fenstermacher. "Most importantly, the students experienced no downtime and had reliable access to college resources as if they had been living on campus the entire time."

With its mission complete and the 400 students now enjoying on-campus housing, W&M's IT staff re-deployed the RoamAbout equipment in other campus facilities. The College of William and Mary, already a wireless user before the residence hall situation, is more enthusiastic than ever about the benefits of wireless networking. It may soon take its wireless coverage campuswide, making the institution one of America's most historic and technically advantaged.

For more information contact Scott Fenstermacher, Network Manager, College of William and Mary, at dsfens@wm.edu.

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