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Wireless U, Everywhere, USA

Wireless U, Everywhere, USA

Universities across the country are increasingly implementing wireless solutions.The reason is twofold: better access for students in an information-centered lifestyle, and increased ROI for the academic institution.

What drives wireless proliferation on campus? How will institutions keep students constantly connected? Wired infrastructure, seemingly available everywhere, is too limiting. Ken Clipperton, managing director, university information services, Buena Vista University, Storm Lake, Iowa, says: "We were at a ratio of 4.5 students per student accessible computer... The biggest complaint from students was 'I can't get to a computer when I want to.'"

For each university interviewed, a one-to-one ratio - a laptop or wireless device for every student - was part of the solution for constant access. Availability requires mobility. Computers that are bolted down make continual access impossible and ruin the learning environment. There was one conclusion - wireless.

The 802.11b standard was finalized in September 1999. "Within a week I wrote an announcement to the campus that the client access for all of our students and faculty ... would be wireless, based on the 802.11b standard. All of our faculty, all of our students, their only connection to the campus network from their primary computer, is wireless. That's about 1,400 people," says Clipperton.

Applications Driving Higher Ed Deployment
Most campuses across the country have implemented or are testing some wireless implementation.

"We recently received a $20-million grant from the Lilly Endowment to push [development of] digital content for education and entertainment. As we migrate our TV systems over to digital television and as we [gain] more capabilities for editing videos, developing animations, editing animations, and making digital content available, we're seeing a large push for wireless access all the way across our campus," says O'Neal Smitherman, VP IT, CIO, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana.

New Generation Guarantees Wireless Success
Traditional college-age students, 18-22, grew up with computers and were exposed to wireless (if only to the awareness of wireless phones). Technologies in existence from the time they had grown to a state of awareness are "old technologies" to them. Progress demands combining these old technologies with each other and with the new ones that they heartily welcome. The purpose: new applications to convenience and empower the goals and expectations unique to this generation.

They expect to be able to multitask. High-speed wireless access is essential to achieving the goals that are the very drivers of their culture. It is their nature that wireless will increasingly be among their highest priorities. They will demand, discover, enable, and achieve it for themselves. It's not easy to see for those not in this generation; we don't prize it as much, understand it as intuitively, or foresee as long a future in which to bring it about. Obstacles we see do not exist for them; their perspective defines a completely different playing field. Those obstructions that are real for all of us will readily disappear before the end of this decade. Look how quickly other technologies are developing. Youth today have no expectation that wireless won't be the same.

Wireless ROI, Easy for Universities
Bearing Point installed American University's (Washington, DC) wireless infrastructure for its campus of about 50,000 students. Wireless ROI should make sense for any campus, not just educational institutions. Though a positive ROI is hard to pinpoint, wireless services save a great deal of expense over wired alternatives while increasing the number and quality of services. With the added "income" of what is invested in the minds of students, ROI for universities is easily calculated.

Joe Sims, managing director of wireless solutions, Bearing Point, illustrates: "If I can say to you, you know that $5 million switch you were going to put in next year? Please don't put that in. And... the cost of supporting all the PBXs you have as well as the staff that supports those throughout the campus, get rid of that too. And by the way, now we are going to bring in a competitive environment where multiple carriers are going to bid for your business. They are at least going to cover their own costs for being on your campus, and you're going to have services you didn't have before for all your constituents, such as instant messaging, e-mail access on mobile devices, alerts, SMS, plus games and things like that."

That is not a pipe dream. That is the solution Sims and Bearing Point brought to American University, and which is in use today.

Other campuses have tabulated variations of a "cost abatement, cost deferment" ROI calculation. The savings of refraining from building out a wired infrastructure are a huge factor in ROI. "We deployed WLANs in student apartments on the edge of campus. This kept deployment costs down, as trenching was prohibitive. The use of the WLAN service in the apartments led to increased use on the campus proper," says Doug Jackson, director, technology customer services, University of Texas, Dallas.

The numbers do not lie. The total cost of wireless implementation at Buena Vista University, including rebuilding the wired infrastructure it connects to, was about $388,000. The estimated cost of a 100% wired alternative? About 2.3 times that figure. "And we still would never have reached a lot of the places where people want to compute," says Clipperton, of Buena Vista U. There are also numbers with respect to time savings. BVU's implementation took a total of two weeks from the day the access points were delivered on site.

Wireless Services
Many universities make laptops, wireless cards, and other devices available for checkout with a campus ID card. Others, like American University, also take advantage of wireless voice. Because campus-based telecommunications hardware and the responsibility to provide dial tone are circumvented, American is "no longer in the local telephone business."

Wireless infrastructure comes at a savings over wired deployments. In the case of American, this is accomplished with distributed antenna systems that simultaneously carry frequencies for WLAN, wireless data, and voice. "These [antenna systems] cost about $60-$120 instead of the $800-$1,000 that a commercial access point might cost," says Sims, of Bearing Point. This infrastructure lays the groundwork for eventual complete replacement of landline phones with wireless phones and headsets.

The University of Texas, Dallas, deployed with plans for possible 802.11a implementation in the future. It plans to move to 802.11a or 802.11g. "Handhelds are starting to make inroads on campus and will definitely play into the wireless strategies soon. However, we have just begun to consider that problem," says Jackson, of UT, Dallas.

"If we play our cards right, we'll be able to support campus voice services (today's telephony) and video services (today's cable TV and movie channels) to any and all PennNet endpoints, including wireless laptops and handhelds. That's a pretty attractive future," says Deke Kassabian, senior technology director, networking & telecommunications, at the University of Pennsylvania, another wireless campus.

What's more, students have figured out new ways to collaborate over these networks - ways that could not have been foreseen. WLAN services create an environment of discovery.

What Has Corporate America Learned?
Using American University's model, for example, where 802.11 is a convergent infrastructure (wherein one network provides three utilities - WLAN, voice, and data - at the cost of one utility or less), some corporate campuses can and do extend LANs wirelessly. "There have been many institutions, particularly convention centers, airports, public places, and increasingly, office buildings, saying [to carriers], if you come in and wire up my building you can have my business because my people can't make calls and we encourage them to use cellphones," says Bearing Point's Sims. "When you converge systems, when you put those things together, there is only about a 15-17% incremental cost. One plus one does not equal two in this case, one plus one equals about 1.17," he says.

Knocking the Wind Out of the Objections
Buena Vista has tried to spread the gospel on why 802.11 wireless for broad campus deployment is practical today. Spokespersons have voiced reasonable responses to the two most pervasive objections - performance and security. As for speed, "Not one student or faculty person has said this [wireless] is too slow," says Buena Vista's Clipperton.

As far as security goes, BVU implemented its wireless network using today's best practices. It uses WEP+, the new WEP that blocks war driving. It chose top-notch hardware. It uses strong encryption at the application level. These steps are the result of a greater logic that makes campus-wide wireless the right choice. "By doing that [installing campus wide] we took away the need for anyone to go out and do their own wireless installation," says Clipperton. "If an individual faculty person or student installs a wireless access point in their room, it's going to be wide open." And, thereby, less secure than if the IT professionals at the campus did it ahead of time.

The default security setting for the equipment is still no security at all. Default setup still accepts any random connection and offers no encryption. This is attractive to the average user for ease of installation, but obviously, it is completely unacceptable for security. "If you don't implement [802.11] from the central IT environment, your users are going to do it anyway, because it's incredibly useful," says Clipperton. "Since they are going to buy the little cheap things [access points] eventually, it's going to generate tech support calls and it's going to be a nightmare. We avoided that nightmare by doing it well, in an enterprise-wide [fashion] and took away the need for people to go out and roll [out] their own."

Food for Thought
When these students who have spent four years in a wireless paradise graduate - from about 2004 on - they are going to expect the work environment they enter to provide the same tools, the same experience. Make ready, it's just around the corner.

More Stories By David Geer

David Geer is a contributing writer to WBT, a journalist, and a computer technician. He graduated from Lake Erie College in 1993 with a BA in psychology and has worked in the computer industry and in the media since 1998.

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