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Moving Toward 'Wireless 2.0'

Penn State beefs up campus WiFi and moves beyond VPN authentication

Intent on expanding its campus wireless Internet offerings to more users while also upgrading those offerings, Pennsylvania State University in State College has launched a WiFi initiative that will expand access to visitors, simplify authentication, and remove the burden of upgrading infrastructure whenever additional bandwidth is needed.

Beyond the VPN
Previously using a "wireless 1.0" authentication system, through which users were granted credentials to access the WiFi via a virtual private network (VPN) client, Penn State is upgrading its offerings to include 802.11x port-based network access control.

"When the changeover is complete, we'll no longer have a VPN client," said Jeff Reel, director of network planning and integration for Penn State's information technology services department. "It will all be wireless 2.0."

Reel said the new system is designed for the university's faculty, staff, and other individuals who use authenticated credentials to access the WiFi network. The previous system was cumbersome at best and created "technology bottlenecks," since users were forced to download the VPN client to their laptops or desktops in order to access the Internet.

"Some people didn't have administrative rights to their computers and therefore weren't able to download the VPN client," explained Reel, who added that the size and scale of that 32-bit client also didn't scale appropriately to meet the needs of the growing university. "We had 64-bit machines coming in and no VPN client available for the individuals who were using those new computers."

With the upgrade to 802.11x currently underway and the VPN client expected to be eliminated by next summer, Reel said he expects a much more seamless experience for users who want to log onto the Internet wirelessly. Right now the college is installing new hardware as part of the implementation, which so far has gone "very well," according to Reel.

"We're already hearing a lot of positive user feedback," said Reel, "with ease of application (due to the fact that users no longer have to go through the cumbersome steps involved with starting the VPN client) being the major driver at this point."

Wireless Access for Visitors
Through an agreement with AT&T, Penn State is also expanding its wireless broadband access to visitors on its 23 campuses and university locations. When the implementation is finished, visitors at those campuses will be able to access the Internet from any WiFi enabled device, just as they can at coffee shops and bookstores.

The rollout started at Penn State's University Park and Altoona campuses, where $5.99 a day (free for those who already have an AT&T WiFi service plan) gets visitors full access to the Internet. Once the campus WiFi networks are deployed, the vendor will provide ongoing support with 24/7 network monitoring, along with repair, maintenance and call center support.

Reel said the new initiative is a boon for visitors who previously had a difficult time staying connected while on campus. "We now have a way for visitors to get public access without Penn State credentials," he said. Previously, no one was able to access the Internet on campus without a college account, and the school had no mechanism for handing out such credentials to "casual visitors," who will still be prohibited from accessing the university VPN client, and the new Web 2.0 solution.

Penn State entered into the agreement with the wireless provider after a two-year research and RFP process, said Reel. Through the new system, the school transports AT&T's IP addresses to distributed access points. Local area network administrators can opt into the service, thus making the campus into an AT&T hot spot.

The wireless services provider is also responsible for providing the bandwidth across the campuses that opt into the network, as well as network management and back-end network operations support. According to Reel, Penn State's technology infrastructure serves as the transport of the provider's signal to the local area network administrators.

"Whereas before we owned our own infrastructure," said Reel, "we now have a partnership that allows us to maintain control of our infrastructure while at the same time offering up the service to campus visitors." Reel stated that the move has caught the attention of other universities around the nation, many of which are interested in duplicating Penn State's initiative.

One of the most attractive aspects of the visitor access, said Reel, is the fact that Penn State isn't tied to AT&T for the services. "We set this up in a way that allows us to change providers, based on the fact that we own the infrastructure," remarked Reel. "At the end of this contract period (three years), and since AT&T meets us at our campus border, we'll be able to switch over to any other provider, such as Sprint or Verizon."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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