Networking & Wireless

'Just-Like-Home' WiFi for Students

The University of California, Irvine put off updating its student housing wireless. Now it's ahead of the pack.

Ubiquitous WiFi is fast becoming the expected standard for higher ed campuses, and the University of California Irvine is no exception. "We got to the point where students brought their own router for wireless," said Kevin Ansel, director of student affairs IT. "We had hundreds of students in line trying to get online with home devices."

As one of 10 University of California schools, Irvine was the only UC campus that didn't have end-to-end wireless. "Students expect wireless, just like they expect cable TV and a meal plan," Ansel explained. "We started working on this project about two years ago, but we had been talking about it for the last five to seven years. The issue was budget. That's what held us up."

When UCI was finally ready to roll out WiFi for student housing, the university partnered with CDW-G and Cisco for the project. Cisco provided the equipment — Aironet 3702i 802.11ac access points — while CDW-G orchestrated the whole installation, providing project management and partnering with network operations on campus in order to meet campus standards.

In the first half of 2014, Ansel and his team met with CDW-G, did a site survey and purchased equipment. That was Phase One. Phase Two was the implementation: "Over a period of several months, we put out bids to contractors to install the needed wiring to support wireless access for four different undergrad communities, geographically located in four different areas of the campus, with an estimated installation of 1,300 access points." As the common areas on campus already had wireless, this project was limited to living quarters only. The goal was to locate the access points so that each student would have the best connectivity.

"We have 30,000 students, 9,000 of whom live on campus," Ansel pointed out. "Our focus was on undergrads — a total of 6,400 students." Ansel noted that UCI grad students live in more traditional apartment-style buildings; most of them prefer to come with their own devices, and many need special access. "For now, we let them manage this," said Ansel. "Eventually, we'll go there too."

Ansel and his team instructed CDW-G to assume that students would have more and more devices over time, and to "think down the road." If students have five to seven devices today, they'll have as many as 10 devices tomorrow. CDW-G, in turn, spent three weeks surveying the campus, came up with a plan to provide wireless now and well into the future, and tested the coverage results.

The Student Housing undergraduate wireless network was fully launched in December, and the result has been "phenomenal," according to Ansel. "The first day we went live, statistics showed that 85 percent of the residents were utilizing the wireless network.  We had zero service issues, and the network ran flawlessly."

The installation has been seamless, and there have been no technical issues. "We're saving money because we don't have to provide as much technical support as in the past," said Ansel. "Now we can focus on other services."

UCI's focus now is on viruses and malware. The IT team provides advice on how to remove viruses and malware from students' devices, and how to install the proper antivirus software and security tools. IT can also monitor the TV infrastructure, provide help desk assistance for students, and attend to the normal "break and fix" on campus. Ansel noted: "Now that we're all wireless, we've eliminated such break and fix problems as broken wall jacks. We had been fixing hundreds of broken wall jacks in the students' rooms each year."

Ubiquitous WiFi

According to a 2015 report on residential networking from the Association for College & University Technology Advancement, more than three out of five schools now provide wireless for 81 to 100 percent of their campuses. Some 465 institutions completed the survey, which targets all higher education institutions in the United States with on-campus residential housing. The report also found that outsourcing grew to 38 percent (from 22 percent in 2013), and noted that outsourcing can trim costs and provide a better value. The report also found that funding increased from 38 percent in 2014 to 54 percent in 2015.

Funding for the UCI project came from the campus Student Housing department. The campus is 50 years old this year, and Student Housing has a major maintenance fund to upgrade and repair the aging infrastructure. "This project cost about $3 million," Ansel said, "including equipment, installation, wiring, professional services, fees, tax, shipping, storage, etc. This was over a period of a year-and-a-half."

Because UCI "got on the bandwagon" later than some schools, it has the benefit of the latest WiFi advancements — and as a result Ansel expects that the university will save money in the long run. "Our upgrade will support wireless for some time. We're free and clear for years to come." UCI's next project is to upgrade the equipment for its wired network. "We're already funded for this project," Ansel explained. "This upgrade goes hand-in-hand with the wireless network."

Ansel's advice for other colleges considering a wireless upgrade is to carefully consider your network operations, facilities management and purchasing. "All of these issues are involved, and all can slow things down. Last year we planned to do a lot of work over the summer, but didn't consider that the campus would not be closed. We had to work around students, conferences and other scheduled events." UCI hosted athletes for the Special Olympics event in Los Angeles last summer, he noted, which limited the IT team's access for wiring, for example.

"Take advantage of professional services that are offered," Ansel added. "CDW-G was very efficient at providing project management and the technical support we needed to augment the resources we had on campus. It was an excellent partnership."

"Most importantly," Ansel concluded, "listen to your students. They'll tell you what services they need, the latest trends, and whatever other services they desire."

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