Campuses Expanding Wireless Coverage

As wireless networks rapidly gain traction on college campuses, more and more administrators are looking to expand their access points, upgrade to faster standards, and entice more students to use the wireless network.

With some sort of wireless network a given for nearly all colleges and universities in the U.S., the questions now become, how far to extend the wireless network? What wireless standards to choose? How to justify and pay for wireless in conjunction with wired? Indeed, what role should the wired network continue to play? And the bottom line: Whether a wireless network helps entice students to select a particular school - and whether it enhances the teaching and learning experience for faculty and students.

Schools that have had great success with wireless range from 35,000-student Indiana University in Indianapolis, named "most unwired campus" earlier this year by Intel Corp., to lesser-known success stories like Mayville State University in North Dakota, the smallest public university in the nation. Mayville has distributed notebook computers to all students for years, and this year moved to well-received tablet PCs - along with 100 percent wireless coverage across its campus.

Mobility Solutions Mushrooming

Changes in wireless solutions are pushing the technology forward rapidly. A new notebook computer without a wireless card is rare these days, for example - and most students tend to show up on campus with notebook computers rather than desktop PCs. At many schools, the steeply dropping costs of hardware - especially wireless access points -- is driving a push by administrators to add access points and encourage students to take advantage of wireless.

Like many campuses, Temple University in Philadelphia will be aggressively expanding its wireless coverage this year for its 34,000 students. "Most common areas have access points in them" now, according to Ariel Silverstone, chief information security officer at Temple. The school is using a marketing campaign to encourage students to use the wireless network. One fresh idea: Wireless laptop rentals for students to encourage them to try out the new technology. "They're being used," Silverstone says, but he'd like to see even more usage - along with more applications and ways to take advantage of wireless.

Indiana University in Indianapolis has what Brian Voss, the associate vice president for
telecommunications in the office of the vice president for IT and CIO, describes as "a rigorous program" in place to increase the number of wireless access points on campus this year. The school's ambitious goal is to boost the current 1,250 access points by up to 40 percent this year. IU has "a good quilt" of coverage, Voss says, but adding coverage will increase usability - and users.

Voss says he expects a major shift this year on his campuses to wireless use. There are about 35,000 students at Indiana University and another 35,000 at associated Purdue University at Indianapolis, 55 miles away. During the previous academic year, Voss says just 1,000 to 1,500 students were using the wireless network. This year, he estimates, there will be 5,000 to 6,000 - a rough estimate that he partly bases on inquiries from parents about what kind of computer equipment to purchase for students.

What's helping drive wireless growth at Indiana, Voss says, is the recognition the school has received for its pervasive wireless infrastructure. It helped when IU was recently named by Intel as "most unwired campus" in a survey of schools across the U.S. ( That sort of publicity drives incoming students to arrive on campus with wireless equipment like notebooks already in hand.

Hardware Can Drive Wireless

Waiting for students and faculty to acquire wireless equipment -- such as laptops with wireless cards - can hold back the growth of a school's wireless network. After all, you need users to justify adding access. That's not the case at Mayville State University, located on the east edge of North Dakota near the Minnesota border. By the end of 2004, the campus will have 100 percent wireless coverage, with the sole exception of the resident halls. Mayville, with just 850 or so students and 60-some faculty members, is the smallest public university in the nation. "We're a small campus and we can move rapidly," explains Mayville CIO Keith Stenehjem of the school's technology advances.

Indeed, the aggressive move to wireless works well at Mayville, since students already have the right equipment. In 1997, the school first issued notebook computers to all students and faculty. They followed with plans that quickly hardwired the entire campus. Once it was so thoroughly wired, Stenehjem explains, there was no aggressive push to more to wireless. But important improvements in wireless technology - chiefly, the lower cost of access points, improved battery life on laptops, and better wireless transmission speeds - have convinced the school to go wireless.

This year, for the first time, Mayville has chosen to distribute Gateway tablet PCs to incoming students and those due for a new system (students and faculty receive a new computer every two years). Besides the tablet concept itself, which proved highly popular with test groups in the spring, is another big selling point. That's the long battery life of the notebooks, which allows students to truly disconnect their notebooks and use them anywhere, Stenehjem explains. Even with wireless notebooks, students often had to plug their systems in. With the considerably longer battery life in the new tablets, that's no longer true.

But even at Mayville, wireless isn't completely replacing wired. For redundancy, the school will keep a number of its hardwired connections. "We still retained [some] hardwired connections," explains Stenehjem, "especially in office space, for operations and faculty." The school also has left existing hard-wired connections around the perimeter of the campus, also for redundancy.

Concerns with Wireless

Administrative concerns over wireless aren't misplaced. Standards are changing rapidly, for one thing. But waiting to jump in or expand your wireless network until standards are completely settled isn't the right approach. "I think that people need to forget about waiting for the perfect standard to come out," says IU's Voss. He suggests that IT administrators accept that wireless equipment has a three-year lifespan and will need to be replaced, and "make an institutional funding stream commitment" to wireless.

Cost, a bigger consideration than ever in IT these days, is actually often a positive when you're weighing wired vs. wireless. Costs have dropped, and it's often easier to install wireless networks. According to Temple University's Silverstone, cost has become a big plus for wireless, rather than a minus, at least for IT professionals. "Infrastructure is not an issue," he says, because "it's absolutely cheaper than wired."

And convincing a university president or board of trustees to spend on wireless these days, Silverstone says, is "a no-brainer." Nearly everyone sees the positive side of the technology, he says, and it will only get better. "I expect that it will be even less of a no-brainer in coming years."

Expanding a wireless network or bumping up to a faster standard needn't mean big costs, concurs Indana's Voss. "These are not huge expenditures," Voss says. "Universities just need to [decide to] spend this money. You can cover two very large campuses for cost of two PeopleSoft consultants for a year. If colleges and universities aren't doing this, they're just crazy."

IU has spent $700,000 total so far on its wireless network. That includes its 1,250 access points ("we got a volume deal," Voss says), initial consulting, and the cost of a project manager for 15 months.

One solution to paying for any technology, including a wireless network and even wireless notebooks for students and faculty, is to assess a fee to cover it. At Winona State University in Minnesota, students are charged a technology fee of $500 a semester. The university, with an enrollment of about 8,000 students, was one of the first "laptop universities" in the nation in 1994. Today, just as at Mayville State, every full-time undergraduate receives a notebook, as do faculty and many staff. (Faculty also pay the technology fee, through the university equipment budget.) The fee covers hardware, software, and support staff, according to J'e Whetstone, vice president of information technology.

As with Winona State, this year the computers are new wireless tablet PCs from Gateway, the school's current supplier. They come loaded and ready to use - a new user simply connects to the network and types in identification. The system connects, configures itself, and is ready to run. The computers are refreshed every two years, so the typical student gets two computers.

Hardware Drives Wireless Success

One of the most compelling aspects of wireless is the new kinds of teaching and learning that it makes possible. We spoke with Whetstone during the first week of classes for the fall semester at Winona State - too soon to fully predict how the new systems will be used. But with 4,000 new convertible tablet notebooks distributed, all of them equipped with both 802.11b and 802.11g access capabilities, the CIO says, "we're seeing a lot of [wireless] activity" already. For one thing, he predicts, "I think we'll see a lot more use in class."

Whetstone is still juggling the right amount of wireless coverage, the very best location for each access point, and the best wireless standard. One issue he has yet to resolve: How to best set up an auditorium-type space for wireless connectivity, given that the space will contain many users, all presumably attempting to access the wireless network at once. Another issue: Whether or not to allow printing, which commands large amounts of bandwidth, to be performed over the wireless network. Winona State has 250 printers across the campus, and Whetstone says he is "currently monitoring [printing jobs] to see if we should be blocking it or not." Some campuses have put in rate limits, so that if the bandwidth is there, the printing job proceeds; if not, the job gets, say, just 10 percent of bandwidth resources. "Or should we just shut them off altogether?" Whetstone asks. "We're experimenting a lot."

The same issue arises with file sharing, which can also be extremely resource-intensive - and may also be illegal or at least unnecessary. "Even services you can buy music from - should we block that?" Whetstone asks. "If you download a song, that takes a lot of bandwidth."

One big selling point for the school: The Gateway tablets were full performance computers as well as capable of converting to tablets. After evaluation by a select group of students and faculty, the school made the decision to introduce tablets. Part of the acceptance of the laptops also comes from the maturity of the software supporting it. Microsoft Windows XP operating system now has a full XP tablet edition that includes sophisticated tablet tools.

D'es Technology Attract Students?

For many IT administrators faced with increasing tough competition for students, the bottom line is this: Do students choose a school based on its technology infrastructure? That's a potential selling point with wireless, and indeed with any technology that entices students, and makes learning easier and more exciting. Administrators are giving a qualified yes -- though no one yet has a study in hand to prove it.

Temple's Silverstone, for one, is convinced that technology is one of the factors that attract students -- although he's quick to say that he d'esn't think it's the only draw. Still, "students absolutely look at the technology," he says.

Lack of a wireless infrastructure, suggests Indiana University's Voss, can become a negative incentive to students weighing the benefits of various schools. "In a day where half a percent drop in enrollment can have significant financial implications," Voss says, schools can't afford to take that chance.

At Winona State, Whetstone says of student and faculty reception to laptop computers, "I think it's very favorable." If he tried to reclaim the 4.000 wireless tablet notebooks just distributed to students and faculty - and already hugely popular -- he suggests, "I think we'd have a major riot. I don't think we could pull [them] from their hands."

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