Funding Your Next Wireless Project

Figuring out how to pay for your campus’ high-speed wireless network can be tough, but it’s not an insurmountable challenge.

The need for increased wireless connectivity is growing rapidly on campus, as university IT administrators, CIOs and technology VPs are well aware. Expanding the wireless network is driven by the need to compete effectively for students by offering up-to-date technology. But the challenge schools face in a time of fiscal constraints is often this: How to meet a growing demand for wireless while staying within budget constraints. It’s a difficult challenge, but one that some schools are meeting creatively—and it may not be as costly as you think.

Huge Growth in Wireless Networks

Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, is the popular term for technology that lets users connect to the Internet at high speeds without wires. Typically, the term is used for the standard called 802.11, whether those numbers are followed by an "a" (maximum speed 54 Mbps, but over a relatively short range), "b" (maximum speed 11 Mbps, but over a greater distance than a), or "g" (the newest standard, with a maximum speed of 54 Mbps and over a greater range than 802.11a).

According to the Mobile Wireless Outlook Report, a comprehensive study by the Center for Telecom Management (an industry-sponsored research center affiliated with the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business), by the end of 2002, fully half of the U.S. labor force had wireless voice, pagers, or mobile computing devices. The center’s report further says that by some estimates, "one-third of the world’s population will own a wireless device by 2008." Since colleges typically are well ahead of business on the technology curve, those numbers are almost certainly larger for higher education.

According to the Campus Computing Project (www.campuscomputing.net), which conducts an annual comprehensive study of the role of information technology in higher education, "wireless is clearly exploding across college campuses."

Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the project and a visiting scholar at The Claremont Graduate University, said in the 2003 report that "rising expectations about wireless services are fostered in part by the recent, dramatic growth of inexpensive wi-fi in the consumer sector."

Data from the project’s 2003 report shows a big jump in wireless network planning and deployment. Over 45 percent of campuses reported strategic plans for wireless networks in fall 2003, up from 34.7 percent in 2002 and 24.3 percent in 2001.

All of that growth is despite the fact that "budget cuts continue to cast a shadow over campus IT activities and investments," the report says, with 41 percent of participants reporting budget cuts affecting academic computing. So how are campuses doing it?

Meeting the Wireless Challenge

Since over 90 percent of campuses in the U.S. already offer some form of wireless network, according to the Campus Computing Project, chances are your school already has some sort of wi-fi network in place. Assuming wireless is already there in some form, colleges and universities face several challenges in the next few years. First, they must expand the wi-fi network to meet a growing student need for wireless in more and more places, while keeping technologies current as new and faster standards (802.11g and eventually third-generation technologies) replace older and slower ones (802.11a and b). Finally, schools must find a way to pay for the wireless network.

That last challenge can be the toughest in many ways. One mistake that IT administrators and CIOs need to avoid is thinking that adding or augmenting a wireless network will reduce the cost of the wired network. That simply isn’t true, according to Brian Voss, the associate vice president for telecommunications in the office of the vice president for IT & CIO at Indiana University.

His school was recently named "Most Unwired Campus" in a survey of college campuses across the U.S. (http://www.intel.com/products/mobiletechnology/unwiredcolleges.htm). The "Most Unwired College Campuses" survey, conducted by Intel Corp., is based on the number of hotspots, the number of undergraduates, number of computers, the computer to student ratio, and the percentage of each college campus that is covered by wireless technology.

There are about 35,000 students at Indiana University and another 35,000 at associated Indiana University - Purdue University at Indianapolis, 55 miles away, along with about 15,000 faculty and staff at the two campuses. The campuses together have over 1,000 access points, at a cost of about $300 per point. The size of the project helped keep costs down, Voss explained: "We did the sort of thing we always do at IU. [Because of the] large volume, we put it out for bids and got the best pricing we could. Based on volume, we offered the vendor a chance to partner with us and make a big impact. That was interesting to several of the vendors."

According to Voss, an important pitfall to avoid (and one that IU fell into initially) is the temptation to think the institution can pay for wireless projects by dipping into funds for the wired infrastructure. In fact, installing or expanding on a wireless network won’t reduce your wired network costs at all, Voss emphasized, since the two networks are typically complementary. In fact, Voss said, wired networks are getting more costly, not less, and thus require additional funding, regardless of the state of the campus wi-fi network.

“What we learned as time passed and we got smarter [is that] wired d'esn’t cost any less today, it costs the same, and maybe a bit more. ” -- Brian Voss

"What we learned as time passed and we got smarter [is that] wired d'esn’t cost any less today, it costs the same, and maybe a bit more." While hardware technology like switches and routers has gotten cheaper, Voss said, other fundamental components such as the wiring itself and the labor to build, maintain, and manage the network have gotten more expensive. Also, demand for more bandwidth and new services have added new costs to the campus network equation.

Justin Borthwick, senior systems programmer at the University of Wyoming and the person responsible for that university’s wired and wireless networks, concurred. He emphasized that there’s been no scaling back of the wired network as wireless has grown—in fact, "the wired side is growing faster that the wireless side."

The University of Wyoming has just over 12,000 students and another 2,000 faculty and staff spread over 785 acres. Currently, Borthwick said, the school has 105 access points, about evenly split between the slower 802.11b wireless standard, and the newer, faster 802.11g. The school is in the process of upgrading all its access points to g and plans to complete the upgrade by the end of 2004.

The wired and wireless networks at UW are "two separate pieces," Borthwick said—in fact, funding for the wireless network comes from a different source. While the wired network is considered part of IT infrastructure and funded as such, the school pays for the wireless network through various groups on campus as they request wireless service.

The University of Wyoming’s method of paying for wireless – having individual groups assume the burden based on need—solves what is a common problem on campus when there’s no planned funding stream for wireless.

Finding the Cash for Maintaining Wireless

Once a wireless network is established, ongoing costs are relatively small, Voss said. For example, he’s invested half a million dollars in the wireless infrastructure in IU, and estimates that he’ll be able to gradually upgrade the entire infrastructure over four years at a cost of less than $150,000 a year.

Nor d'es Voss find managing the wireless network overly expensive, although he emphasizes that he already has a large and well-established wired network in place, with thousands of routers, switches, and other hardware. With that, along with the staff to manage it, Voss finds that a wi-fi network "really d'esn’t present a huge management challenge. This stuff is really fairly easy."

At the University of Wyoming, Borthwick says, they spent about $700 per access point—a cost that includes a high-gain antennae for better coverage at some locations. The university, an all-Cisco shop, used a Cisco Aironet 350 or Cisco Aironet 1200 for each access point. That choice will pay off when the school upgrades to 802.11g, since Borthwick said Cisco offers a cost-effective upgrade plan of just $50 or so per access point to upgrade the devices by simply swapping a card. (The less-expensive Cisco Aironet 350 series have to be returned and replaced.)

“We’ve been very pleased with the overall cost of upgrading. Cisco came along with these very simple, very easy upgrades” -- Justin Borthwick

"We’ve been very pleased with the overall cost of upgrading. Cisco came along with these very simple, very easy upgrades," Borthwick said. Overall, he estimates that the UW network—including two VPN concentrators to enhance the signal, a wireless gateway, and all of the access points—cost under $100,000.

Get Creative to Extend Your Wireless Network

Finally, a creative and cost-effective way to extend your campus wi-fi network is through a partnership with a local provider. At Indiana University, the school is extending its wireless network off the campus and into the local surrounding area. To do so, Voss explained, the school is working with an Internet service provider in the area called Kiva that provides wireless "hot spots" locally. Through a partnership, the university allows Kiva members to access the university wireless network while on campus, with proper security. Similarly, students can use the Kiva hot spots off-campus to connect through to the campus network.

That means that students in a local coffee house with a Kiva wireless connection can authenticate through and access the university wi-fi network even though they’re off-campus. "As [Kiva] grows their network and makes it more robust," Voss says, "it will allow us to broaden the impact of our environment – and will allow them to get others interested in their services for other reasons."

Clearly, creativity can pay off in the struggle to find funds for expanding wireless networks on campus. Since industry research firm Gartner predicts that 99 million people will have wi-fi-capable computers by 2006, you can expect that a portion of those wireless users will be your students, faculty and staff—all hungry for more hot spots, faster connections, and the latest wireless technology.

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