Case Study

Small College Makes Big Leap in Wireless

Small colleges can often be just an innovative and leading-edge in their technology rollouts as large ones, or even more so, with the right approach and know-how.

Davidson College, located 20 miles north of Charlotte, NC, is a highly selective liberal arts college that has graduated 23 Rhodes scholars and offers a student to faculty ratio of 10 to one. Average class size is just 15 students. Despite the small size of their college, Davidson students now have a high-performance broadband wireless network covering the entire 450-acre campus.

The network, with just 27 nodes, uses a less conventional approach to WiFi than many institutions have chosen, one that has halved the number of wireless access points needed ensure good coverage.

For its 802.11b/g network, Davidson turned to a solution from BelAir Networks, replacing a previous wireless system.

Wireless at Davidson before the upgrade, according to Jeff Bowman, Davidson's wireless LAN manager for IT services, was spotty and underpowered--more a convenience than a communication tool. It relied on a small number of stand-alone consumer-grade access points in limited areas across campus.

When Bowman arrived, he began beefing up wireless coverage but still had just a handful of buildings covered and no outdoor coverage to speak of. In 2005, he began an initiative to put BelAir's wireless coverage in buildings throughout campus. Davidson is now using the same broadband wireless technology used in the Lincoln Center in New York and in citywide networks in large cities such as Minneapolis, London, and Toronto.

Beyond the standard e-mail and Web access functions, Davidson students can also use the new network with devices such as the iPhone--anything that is WiFi certified, essentially, although all devices must be registered on the network first.

The design of BelAir's wireless network and access points has allowed the college to use far fewer APs than might normally be required for a campus of Davidson's size, Bowman explained. At the college, many of the APs used to provide wireless coverage inside buildings are actually mounted on the outside of those buildings rather than on each floor inside, a more common placement technique. "We would need at least 50" access points from a competing wireless vendor, Davidson estimated, nearly double what he has in place, "to equal what we have now."

Bowman estimated that the BelAir wireless network now in place covers 90 percent of the campus. All dormitories are completely covered using the BelAir network, for example. Because dorms at Davidson have windows largely on one side, signals from the access points can be beamed through the windows for excellent coverage in student rooms.

Some buildings already covered by an existing Aruba wireless network continued to use that system. "We did not install in places where we already had indoor wireless," Bowman said, such as larger academic buildings. He said once the technology used in those APs begins to expire, he anticipates upgrading those structures to the BelAir network as well and probably upgrading to the pending 802.11n wireless standard.

The BelAir network has convinced Davidson of the growing importance of wireless. "We used to tout wireless as a convenience," Bowman said. "What we've realized over the last six to eight months, after we put BelAir in, is that wireless isn't a convenience any more. [The wireless network] needs to be up and operational as much as our wired network."
Bowman said he still views the wired network as the primary one--and encourages students, faculty and staff to plug in for best performance.

BelAir's modular architecture can also support multiple frequencies--including iMAX and 4.9 GHz Public Safety--on the same mesh, providing Davidson with flexibility. For example, if they chose, college police could choose to use existing BelAir access points for their exclusive 4.9 GHz public safety network.

In other uses of the wireless network, Davidson also intends to use it to monitor equipment and to control campus lighting systems. Security personnel can file reports remotely over the network, improving their productivity and reducing time spent in the office.

Wireless, Bowman concluded, has simply become "less of a convenience and more of a necessity.... When you visit a college now, any parent wants to know if the college has wireless. It's not an option, it's a necessity."

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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