Funding Your Next Wireless Project

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.

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