Wireless on Campus: The Joys of College WiFi

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Ah, college. Just the word conjures up keggers, midterms, all-nighters, and … laptops?

According to the Campus Computing Project, which studies IT in higher education, WiFi is gaining traction at schools from New York to L.A., making laptops a common addition to students’ backpacks. As of the fall of 2005, 64 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities had a plan for WiFi deployment, and nearly 29 percent already had installed a campuswide WiFi network. (Compare that with 2000, when less than 4 percent of all schools had dipped their toes into WiFi’s waters.)

Chipmaker Intel also ranks the nation’s schools in terms of wireless coverage, and it found that in 2005, nearly three-quarters of the top 50 schools had 100 percent coverage on campus. Less than a sixth of the top 50 had full coverage in 2004, so things are ramping up.

Why? Because WiFi makes sense. Whether it’s a college, a university or even a technical school, the average campus is old, and running cable through buildings that date to the Civil War can be a mammoth task. WiFi solves those problems, bringing the convenience of untethered computing to students who already enjoy it in their homes and even their high schools. In fact, WiFi is so common in today’s suburbs — you can’t find a Starbucks without it — some students have come to expect it everywhere.

WiFi also fosters new ways of learning. Take Dartmouth College, for instance, which always has ranked among the nation’s most networked schools. Based in Hanover, N.H., this small, highly selective campus used wireless PDAs in a neurology class to help students submit anonymous answers to lecture questions. And at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, students can receive different lecture outlines based on their location on campus, all through the wireless network. The college has also offered softphones to students for years. The phones plug directly into students’ laptops, meaning there’s no reason not to phone home (and ask mom and dad for cash).

Pros and Cons
But deploying WiFi on campus is not without problems. Chief among them is size. After all, it’s one thing to drop a few APs (access points) into an office or even into several floors in an office building — it’s quite another to cover a few thousand acres with hundreds of buildings in dozens of locations, not to mention hills, ponds, lakes, streams, fountains and even the occasional waterfall (water is the sworn enemy of a WiFi signal). The labor alone can be intense, and the raw number of APs and other gadgets, each with its own price tag, can make a chief financial officer choke.

The buildings themselves are a special problem. Many were fashioned of thick stone and timber — they were built to last, not to let data float through their walls. What’s more, all the additions, new wings and repairs made over the years add further roadblocks to WiFi signals. And if that weren’t enough, let’s not forget the most basic issue of all: You can’t just rip up a building that’s 200 years old. Quite a few campus landmarks are preserved with all the care that an archivist uses to show papyrus.

Last, there are the students themselves. They can pack hallways, classrooms and quads in greater densities than knowledge workers fill any office. And to make things worse, the human body is composed mostly of water, which can stop a WiFi signal cold (if, that is, it’s in the 2.4 GHz range, as are 802.11b and 802.11g).

An Ounce of Prevention
That’s why it’s vital to plan campus WiFi with care. You’ll need to consider a number of issues that can make or break your project’s success.

First up is the placement of access points. Putting them in closets or behind rows of musty books will do nothing to help users find a signal. You’ll need to take special care in labs where metal equipment and liquids are common. But the judicious use of antennae, which amplify or focus a signal, and repeaters, which extend the signal, can help you push coverage into hard-to-reach spots or simply focus coverage on highly used, well-trafficked locales such as a terrace where students sit and work.

You’ll also need to choose your equipment with care. The most common standard is 802.11b, followed by 802.11g, which is faster. But each operates in the 2.4 GHz range, where microwaves and a number of cordless telephones work, as well. All told, the interference can make dorm room transmissions a nightmare. Choosing 802.11a can fix the problem, as it operates in the 5 GHz spectrum, but this newer standard also has a shorter range. The range of the average AP is 300 feet, but the effective range — the useful range with interference — is a mere 150 feet. Roughly half that is 802.11a, which also makes coverage more expensive, as you’ll need more APs to blanket the same space.

And of course you’ll have to combat hackers. Universities are hotbeds of research — certain departments such as IT, engineering, and physics might have secrets in their data that you don’t want to expose. (In fact, some of their research might be commissioned by the government or funded by federal dollars that stipulate tight precautions against hacking and other abuse.) You’ll need special safeguards to keep those networks secure, and you might even choose to keep the most sensitive data off the wireless network itself.

If you work at a school that’s been slow to go wireless, you might have to contend with departments that dropped APs on their own, eager to use the technology and unwilling to wait for campus IT to do it. If so, you’ll need to decide in advance how to deal with existing WiFi networks, and whether you’ll remove them. You can expect sharp resistance from department heads and others who object to removing a convenience on which they’ve come to rely.

And you can expect to spend a good deal of time planning, too — few projects have the potential to change the daily lives of students as a good WiFi network, extending everything from Outlook to the Internet into the classroom and the furthest reaches of your campus. But few projects can take as much time and effort, too, making your rollout something to plan with care.

David Garrett is a Web designer and former IT director, as well as the author of “Herding Chickens: Innovative Techniques in Project Management.” He can be reached at dgarrett@certmag.com.

Don’t Forget Snow!
If the buildings are old and the hallways crowded, you’ll find that deploying WiFi on campus is a challenge, to say the least. Stone, thick timber, densely packed rooms and the natural beauties that make a campus so attractive (e.g. groves, hills and lakes) can give WiFi the hiccups.

But so can snow, which is something that’s often ignored. It’s tempting to roll out WiFi in the summer, when students are scarce, time is abundant and you have the chance to fix bugs before end users find them. But when winter sweeps in, snow blankets not just the buildings but the trees, shrubs and other foliage that’s so abundant on campus, making them dense and making WiFi harder to spread than ever. What’s more, the winter chill makes students pack into buildings, searching for heat. All those bodies add more obstacles to WiFi, meaning you’ll have to plan for extensive winter testing in advance.

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