Bill Cahill, vice president for information technology at St. Edward’s University, spread wireless access across student dormitories to create minilearning areas.
Aug 14 2008

Home is Where the Technology Is

New dormitories are the front lines of advancing technology on campus.

Dorms don’t get much swankier than University Village at Auburn. This 8-building, 1,700-bed complex, scheduled to open in fall 2009 at a cost of $118 million, will feature suites with private bedrooms, all-wireless Internet access, card-swipe security readers at entrances and sustainable components such as “cool roofs,” Energy Star–compliant appliances and rainwater collection devices.

In one important aspect, though, the residence hall is downright retro: no phone jacks in any of the student rooms. There is one phone in the hallway on each floor.

“It’s really a blast from the past,” admits Bliss Bailey, executive director of the Office of Information Technology at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., recalling a time just a few decades ago when a single hall phone was standard at most universities. “But when we were doing network design and started looking into the utilization of traditional landlines in the dorms, we realized that very few of those phone jacks in the rooms ever had a phone plugged into them [because] the vast, vast majority of students have cellular phones.”

Auburn’s decision to follow the technological lead of its students in its decision to give up traditional landline telephone systems is part of a growing trend among higher education institutions over the past few years. A 2008 study by New Jersey–based research firm Student Monitor showed 88 percent of college students nationwide own a cell phone. Use of broadband IP-based technology has also skyrocketed. Student Monitor says 88 percent of students access the Internet once a day or more, and they spend an average of 19 hours per week online — twice the time they spent in 2000.

To support this trend, schools are moving to install alternative technologies. Ubiquitous wireless Internet access, cell repeaters and enhanced cell coverage, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone service and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) are all being installed in lieu of landline telephones in residence halls. In June, news reports showed at least six U.S. universities had stopped using landline phone systems in their dorms.

St. Edward’s University, for example, has installed wireless Internet access in its dorms despite the fact that it also offers wired Internet access with 1-gigabyte capacity in all student rooms. To ensure maximum coverage, the school is taking great care in the placement of wireless antennas and targeting the position of wireless beams to guard against any dead spots or slow-performance areas anywhere in the dorms.

“We have a student-centric wireless strategy,” says Bill Cahill, vice president for information technology at St. Edward’s, a private, Catholic liberal arts institution of approximately 5,300 students in Austin, Texas. “Basically, anywhere the students live, eat, sleep, study, learn or gather is wireless. That enables them to create minilearning communities wherever they happen to be at the moment.”

Tapping Into Savings

There are practical reasons for synchronizing network blueprints with students’ expectations of technology, such as saving money on construction and operations, simplifying network administration and improving functionality and network performance, higher education officials say.

By largely eliminating phones in its new dorm, for instance, Auburn will save a significant amount of money on both the physical wiring of the building and monthly service fees, says Bailey, because it’s now paying for only a few dozen phone jacks instead of hundreds of them.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., is installing VoIP in its new Ashdown Graduate Residence Hall (and retrofitting existing dorms across campus), and officials there expect to realize significant administrative and cost benefits from the decision to move away from traditional phone service. Although like Auburn, the MIT dorms will provide a few live landlines in hallways for safety, the school’s Information Systems and Technology (IS&T) department will eventually be able to eliminate its specialized telephony group because VoIP can be monitored by IT networking staff.

“There will be only one network , including voice,” says Eliot Eichen, VoIP Transition Manager for MIT’s IS&T department. “We are getting out of the telephone business.”

Striking a Balance

Trying to meet student expectations can make for some hard choices, however. Bailey explains that in deciding to extend the campus wireless network to University Village, housing officials had to forgo their desire to also provide the dorm with wired access to high-speed Internet. The only conventional wiring in student rooms will be for cable television.

To ensure adequate capacity, the wireless network inside the dorm will be based on the latest iteration of the wireless standard 802.11n, with access points that provide speeds of up to 155 megabits per second. The wiring from those access points back to the network backbone will be upgraded as well. As a result, the new wireless network will provide superior performance to the school’s existing ResNet, a wired network that provides 10Mbps Ethernet connections.

This summer, Auburn’s existing dorms will also be converted to support wireless access, and the existing wired network serv­ice and room telephone jacks will be turned off. Another plus: The decision to move to wireless, says Bailey, will allow the school to eliminate all the costs and administrative burdens associated with ResNet.

“The concept of ResNet really goes away,” Bailey says. “Now there’s just a single wireless network, so whether you happen to be in the dorms or walking around campus, you’ll have access to the same network.”

In some cases, school officials are building new dorms with an eye toward the next generation of technology. For instance, MIT is installing four networking ports in its Ashdown Graduate Residence Hall. Two of them are for high-speed Internet, one is for VoIP and the fourth is “for the future,” says Director of Housing Dennis Collins, noting that the line could eventually be used for IPTV or some other cutting-edge technology not yet available.

VoIP remains in the very early stages of adoption, but MIT is nonetheless moving its entire phone infrastructure to the packetized telephony service. Eichen says that while most students do have cell phones, university officials still want each student to have an easy-to-contact, permanent but mobile MIT phone number, which VoIP enables. Traditional wired phone serv­ice requires a new number when students change residence. Cell phones also require a new number if students change their service provider.

The University of Houston (UH) is installing VoIP as well as IPTV (see sidebar on previous page) in its new Calhoun Lofts dormitory, but is outsourcing those services (along with high-speed Internet) to a major telecommunications provider.

“We wanted to provide the students with the latest technology and the expandability of that technology, which a company that does that for a living can adapt better than we can,” says Javier Hidalgo, associate director for Residential Life and Housing at the Texas university. The arrangement, he says, allows the school to stay on top of a fast-changing technology without the required capital investment and provides greater scalability and capacity.

For some schools, the leading-edge is just a bit too sharp. Officials at Wake Forest University researched the installation of VoIP in its dorms a few years ago but nixed the idea for security reasons. “We felt that it was problematic because VoIP does operate on the network and requires power,” recalls Rick Matthews, associate provost for Information Systems at the Winston-Salem, N.C., school. “If you don’t have some sort of redundant power, there’s always the possibility that there could be a safety issue there.”

As a result, although the large majority of students have cell coverage, all dorms still have live phone jacks in student rooms. Although traditional telephony is an individual service and cost that most students don’t rely on, “we felt that it was important to have them so that in an emergency we would be able to reach all of our students quickly,” Matthews said.

Bringing Students Up to Speed

St. Edward’s has added a new character to residence-hall living: the residence technical adviser. Although the school’s IT department will also provide plenty of support, these in-house experts will be available to provide their neighbors with “seven-day coverage, pretty much around the clock,” Cahill says, if students need assistance in setting up their computers for wireless use, resolving any wired network connection issues or addressing any other computing problems that pop up.

MIT has the larger issue of introducing its students to VoIP, both as a concept and as a service. To speed the process, the school set up a website to familiarize students with how it can be used — including information on using a special phone that plugs into the wired port, converting a traditional handset to VoIP, downloading software to utilize a notebook as a VoIP device and accessing the service through their cell phone — and what service options are available.

At UH, students will get all their support through the outsourced provider, which will offer paper-based instruction, hotline service, website support and hands-on technical support to any student who needs it.

Although Auburn’s IT department has spent a great deal on site surveys and diagnostic tools to ensure solid wireless coverage within the dorms, Bailey says they’ve taken the precautionary measure of “building a bit of slack in our budget so we can come back and reinforce the network wherever we may have miscalculated and left coverage problems.”

In the end, the benefits of keeping students technologically content outweigh any difficulties encountered along the way, says Collins. In MIT’s case, school officials think their tech-savvy students will actually be bowled over by the new capabilities available in their dorms.

“I think the level of service for each student is going to be 10 times better than what they’ve had before in our dorms,” he says. “Everything they’re going to get is going to be a huge improvement over what they’re accustomed to.”

Must See TV

Obviously, universities should invest in technology that improves the education, safety and convenience of its students, but should commitment extend to higher-quality entertainment? Yes, say officials at the University of Houston (UH), which will be providing Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) to residents of Calhoun Lofts, a $108 million, 547,000-square-foot residence hall for graduate and professional students, opening in fall of 2009.

Javier Hidalgo, associate director for Residential Life and Housing at UH, says that the realities of competitive admissions, student expectations and 21st-century life all factored into the decision to offer IPTV in student housing. “You need to be able to provide the choices that any student would have, whether they live on campus or anywhere else,” he explains, noting that IPTV is now available in parts of Houston.

However, notes Charles Chambers, manager of network planning and development at UH, there is also an academic component. IPTV offers access to traditional educational outlets such as The Learning Channel, The History Channel and the National Geographic Channel, and also allows students to watch channels broadcast from other countries.

Meanwhile, Back in the Classroom…

St. Edward’s University is contemplating an application that would allow faculty to send students a quick, anonymous quiz to their notebooks or BlackBerrys just before class, possibly abetted by the new wireless networks in the dorms, and then base class content on the results.

If, for example, a quiz showed that students were well versed in three of five areas of study, but less so in the other two, an instructor could adjust the day’s lesson plan to focus more on those areas where students need more help.

“Our early experimentation shows that this makes the learning much more effective, so we think it will eventually be an excellent application for our wireless network,” says Bill Cahill, vice president of technology at St. Edward’s.

Matt Lankes