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Campuses Expanding Wireless Coverage

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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