O’Neal Smitherman implemented WiMAX, hybrid and mesh wireless technologies at Ball State.
Aug 20 2007

Wireless: The Next Generation

Campuses turn to WiMAX, mesh, hybrid systems and thin nodes to extend wireless coverage and reduce costs.
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O’Neal Smitherman has seen the future of wireless networking, and it extends far beyond the classrooms, cafeterias and common areas of the typical university campus.

Smitherman, the CIO and vice president of information technology at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., is turning to WiMAX, Wi-Fi, mesh and hybrid systems to ratchet up communication on campus and beyond. “We’re looking for faster, better and less expensive ways to manage the wireless infrastructure,” he says.

The use of WiMAX will eventually reduce the number of access points at Ball State from more than 1,200 to possibly a single base station, improve coverage across the 660-acre campus and simplify IT administration and security. Meanwhile, a hybrid WiMAX and Wi-Fi network delivers educational media and content developed at Ball State — including interactive simulations and games — to local elementary schools without the need to build out a wired infrastructure. “This is the future of wireless technology,” Smitherman says.

Over the last few years, most colleges and universities have embraced Wi-Fi as a way to provide ubiquitous Internet access to students and staff. Wireless networks have become common in classrooms, libraries, dorms and outdoor spaces. However, advances in technology and a growing understanding of how and where to deploy wireless technology are prompting many schools to reassess their systems and policies. “The wireless landscape is changing,” observes Daryl Schoolar, a senior analyst at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based consulting firm In-Stat.

To be sure, schools are looking for ways to expand and improve wireless coverage. Yet, at the same time, students and staff demand more from wireless networks — and some educators seek tightly defined rules about where access is available. Finding the right balance and installing the right mix of technology can prove challenging, particularly as schools grapple with off-campus coverage, rogue access points, the illegal use of networks, radio frequency interference and a backlash against wireless in the classroom. As Smitherman puts it, “Wireless access is now an essential part of a campus environment. It’s essential to design and build an infrastructure that matches the school’s specific needs.”

Mixed Signals

Smitherman turned to WiMAX, hybrid and mesh technologies to take wireless at Ball State to the next level. The campus, serving more than 20,000 students, still relies on conventional 802.11b/g wireless systems to provide coverage across campus. But it was increasingly clear to Smitherman that the limitations of Wi-Fi along with remarkable advances in technology translated into a need to step into the future of wireless communications.

In 2005, Ball State built out a combination wireless point-to-point and Wi-Fi network. It provides elementary schools in the area with specialized content by transmitting data from a tower located on campus to more than 40 access points in the community — each equipped with a power supply and antenna for receiving and sending signals — using an unlicensed 5.8-gigahertz wireless frequency. From each access point, the university transmits the data to the elementary school using 802.11g running at 2.4 GHz.

“The challenge was how to get the data beneath the canopy and deliver it in a way that it could actually be used. There was no way to get the line-of-sight system to transmit the signal directly to the schools and homes because of various objects creating interference and blocking the signal,” Smitherman says.

Ball State’s Office of Wireless Research and Mapping developed a testing system that measures signal strength by analyzing topography, buildings, trees, motor vehicles and other objects. It generates a geographic information system map that helps telecommunications engineers determine where to locate access points, base stations and other devices used within a wireless network.

The following year, Ball State added mesh networking to its existing Wi-Fi network in order to blanket the entire campus, including shuttle buses that transport students between buildings and dorms. The system passes signals among various campus nodes to maintain a constant connection. “Today, students expect to be connected all the time. Pervasive wireless on campus is just one part of the picture,” he says.

Ball State began testing WiMAX using a 3.5-GHz frequency last spring. Although any widespread use of the technology remains two or three years away and largely dependent on the extensive availability of WiMAX cards and chips built directly into personal computers, Smitherman believes that early testing will pay dividends down the line. “It’s helping us understand how we can improve wireless coverage and integrate future capabilities,” he says.

For Ball State, the goal is to create networks that enhance the educational process and provide a better overall platform for communications. “Our interest is in developing interactive media, simulations, visualizations, and other forms of graphic media and exploring how they impact education. Wireless technology is a powerful tool for sharing content and improving learning,” Smitherman says.

Making Connections Count

Advances in technology are changing the way other schools manage wireless networks as well. For some, the goal isn’t so much to embrace leading-edge WiMAX, mesh and point-to-point systems, but to achieve greater efficiency and performance while lowering costs and boosting security. “Many schools are looking to provide basic wireless services as a way to remain attractive to students,” Schoolar says.

At Wheaton College, a private liberal arts college in Wheaton, Ill., the emphasis is on tweaking, upgrading and improving the existing network. The 80-acre campus, which serves approximately 2,400 students, received an 802.11b/g network in 2005. The first phase of the wireless initiative provided access to key areas through 72 access points. The school is now adding an additional 230 access points for campuswide coverage. It is also beta-testing 802.11n wireless gear so that it can improve network speed.

So far, Wheaton intentionally limits wireless access to dorms, libraries, public areas, labs and select classrooms. “Approximately two-thirds of faculty members do not want wireless access because they view it as a distraction,” says Lowell Ballard, director of computing services at Wheaton. Like most schools do, Wheaton provides free access for students and faculty, but it has rolled out a fee-based system for guests attending conferences and other business events that take place at the school.

The main focus for IT, Ballard says, is getting the most out of the existing network. For example, it is currently migrating from thick nodes to thin nodes by replacing older access points with newer units. This will increase network speed and simplify IT administration. The new access points offer layer 2 capabilities, including load balancing across multiple channels. The technology relieves network congestion and allows students to wander among different access points if they’re in motion. What’s more, the access points support both Windows and Macs without client extensions.

But Wheaton isn’t stopping there. It is currently introducing a service set identifier (SSID) system that will provide the same level of protection as its Ethernet network; it has introduced software that enforces policies at the port level to protect against peer-to-peer software and other illicit activities; and it has installed systems that detect and suppress rogue access points. In the future, it will also use the wireless network for Internet protocol telephony and IP video. “Managing a wireless network is an ongoing process that requires the right technology and processes,” Ballard observes.

Covering All the Bases

Some schools are looking to use basic wireless technology in new and innovative ways, In-Stat’s Schoolar points out. This might translate into setting up wireless point-of-sale terminals at a bookstore, so that it’s possible to hold a sidewalk sale or process orders more quickly than with a fixed terminal. Or it could mean providing coverage across a sports field so that score keepers and the press can access data and transfer stats and stories.

Oregon State University is among the institutions that has realized substantial benefits from wireless technology. In 2004, the Corvallis campus installed a wireless network using 802.11b/g, and it now operates more than 750 access points for upward of 4,000 wireless users. The school has more than 34,000 registered media access control (MAC) addresses overall. Wireless coverage extends to sports fields, quads, common areas and classrooms. However, as at Wheaton College, many professors have indicated that they prefer to block access in classrooms.

Mark Keppinger, senior network security analyst for OSU, says that the university has continued to upgrade its wireless network. Presently, it is migrating from thick to thin access points to simplify administrative tasks such as updates and patches. “We’re able to push out an update across the entire network at one time rather than update each access point individually,” he explains.

In addition, the school uses multiple SSIDs in order to control access at various locations — including satellite campuses. Individuals can register up to two MAC addresses so that they can use multiple devices, such as a notebook PC and a personal digital assistant, on the wireless network.

Over the last couple of years, OSU has also become more aggressive about using encryption, controlling rogue access points and ensuring that students have up-to-date patches and antivirus signatures installed on their PCs before they are granted access to the network.

“We’re dealing with constant change and evolution,” Keppinger says. “The right configuration makes it easier to build a flexible and robust environment but maintain the level of security that’s required.”

To be sure, university IT executives have begun to understand the value of mapping out a wireless strategy and upgrading systems and processes to reflect changing conditions and internal requirements.

“Over time, schools are getting smarter about how they use wireless technology,” Schoolar notes. “In the quest for ubiquitous coverage, schools are beginning to understand how different wireless technologies, tools and approaches can boost flexibility and provide important features.”

Making Wireless Work

Here are five ways to maximize the effectiveness of a wireless network:

  1. Survey users and conduct an in-depth analysis: Understand your school’s requirements as well as preferences of faculty, staff and students. This helps ensure that you put the right systems in place — and avoid expensive and misdirected investments.
  2. Match wireless technology solutions with the organization’s specific requirements: Once an organization develops a strategic map, it’s possible to choose specific solutions that optimize performance and reduce costs.
  3. Build in flexibility and scalability: You’ll be able to adapt to changing conditions and new requirements. Stick with standards and build a foundation for future growth and change.
  4. Maintain adequate security: Employ access points, service set identifiers (SSIDs), encryption, firewalls and other tools. It’s vital to protect the network and keep it clear of hackers, malware and other problems.
  5. Reassess requirements, systems and technology periodically: The wireless world is changing rapidly and the technology is constantly evolving. Organizations that stay current and make incremental changes are less likely to experience problems, breaches and other failures.

Wireless at a Glance

Wi-Fi: Wireless fidelity, which uses the 802.11 standard, has become a mainstream wireless technology since its formal introduction in 1999. Through the use of access points, it’s possible to extend a wireless local network (WLAN) across a business or campus.

Mesh Network: This approach relies on a decentralized architecture where signals and data travel node to node, rather than from a central access point to each computer. As a result, a wireless mesh network is able to deliver more thorough coverage.

WiMAX: Worldwide interoperability for microwave access revolves around the 802.16 broadband standard. A single base station offers a range of up to 30 miles, eliminating the need for access points.