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UC Irvine Finally Adding Wi-Fi to Residence Halls

Undergraduates living on campus this coming fall at the University of California, Irvine will finally be able to unplug their devices in the residence halls. The institution is in the process of installing 802.11ac in the residential housing as part of a longer-term campus-wide wireless upgrade.

According to Michael Scott, manager of network engineering in the Office of Information Technology (OIT), the campus has "about 8000 beds and everything is hard-wired." The new project is on a "fast track" to be completed for the incoming class.

In the past if students wanted wireless access in their rooms for their smartphones, tablets and computers, they had to purchase their own wireless access points and put them on the network according to a specific configuration.

That approach has posed challenges, Scott said. "You have multiple thousands of students show up in the fall and [told they] have to go buy an access point and configure it besides everything else they want to do or have to do. That's confusing for people leaving home for the first time. Then they're lined up outside the residential network services help desk."

The latest initiative is "an effort to alleviate a whole bunch of things. It enhances the campus experience for the student and it makes it easier for them to access technology," he said. "Most people with portable devices don't even have a place to plug a cable into."

The Wi-Fi upgrade actually began about a year ago with a major site survey to determine back end needs and to pinpoint where cabling needed to be pulled or added and access points placed. Although in theory the standard promises more bandwidth and 802.11ac access points can handle more clients, the site survey was essential. Although he said he has seen vendors advertise numbers of "associated clients" for their 11ac access points in the range of 125 or 150, he added, there's more to the calculation. For example, UC Irvine's residential facilities all come from different eras. "We have buildings here built in the '60s and we have buildings built recently. They're all different," said Scott. "So it's more than the number of clients. It's also about where you place them and interference."

Now contractors are coming in to hang 1,300 access points from Cisco. As part of that project the university will also add two Cisco 8510 Wireless Controllers, new routers and new Power-over-Ethernet switches. Scott's group will be decommissioning legacy Cisco WiSM controllers as older access points no longer supported by the new controllers are removed from operation. That will bring the campus total to four 8510 controllers and more than 3,100 access points by the end of 2015.

The campus was an early wireless leader, but the economic downturn hit the networking budget hard, explained Scott. "The state and the campus were simply not able to fund all of the needs that people outlined for technology. We're catching up. But it's going to be a long and slow process before we get our whole campus covered with wireless."

The Wi-Fi Funding Question
UC Irvine has a few different approaches for deciding where new wireless gear will be installed. First, with all major capital improvement or new construction projects, "It's a requirement that 100 percent wireless will be available to the occupants of the building," Scott said.

Second, the institution has committed "about a million dollars" for network improvements to research and academic areas on the primary campus. The prioritization follows two criteria: 1) Does the building have wireless equipment that will no longer be supported by the new Cisco controllers? If so it needs to be upgraded. 2) Do the researchers have access to Wi-Fi yet? "We ask for input from the research and academic community and say, 'Look, where are the greatest needs?' Then a team of people at the campus evaluate that and help decide where limited funds will be spent to enhance those services," he explained.

Third, OIT has access to funds generated through a technology fee for students ($4 per undergraduate lecture course unit, up to a maximum of $60 per quarter) put in place several years ago and administered by people outside of the OIT organization. Students are surveyed to find out where their priorities lay and then OIT submits a proposal to the "eTech" fund committee for evaluation to address those areas, which mostly focus on Wi-Fi in common areas. That money is also spent to upgrade the classroom experience as well, when a faculty member can make a case.

Fourth, Scott's group does cost-sharing with specific departments that want Wi-Fi, eliminating labor charges and "throwing in some of the materials," for example.

But even with the major Wi-Fi upgrade currently taking place in student housing, the university isn't removing the Ethernet ports from the residential halls. While Wi-Fi rules on campus, delivering choice is even better. "We're leaving them connected," he said. "There are still a number of devices — gameboxes and things — that just operate better if they're plugged into a physical cable."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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