Monte Christman (l) and Tommy Holder (r) of Central Carolina Community College in North Carolina. Holder says deploying wireless was in response to requests by faculty and students.
Oct 06 2010

Campus Connection

Colleges deploy Wi-Fi to meet the demand for ubiquitous connectivity.

November 2010 E-newsletter

Campus Connection

Wireless Management Matures

Maximizing 802.11n

Aruba's Manageable Gear

Central Carolina Community College is like scores of other colleges that have elevated a wireless LAN project from an elective to a requirement.

What changed? With mobile technology now pervasive, students and faculty want a quick and easy way to tap into all the resources of the campus network and the web, so the administration recognized that to stay competitive they had to offer wireless connectivity.

“Our WLAN deployment was demand-driven,” says Tommy Holder, Central's director of IT, noting that faculty and students expect mobile access to support their academic research and communications with one another.

Holder says rising demand for wireless connectivity pushed the college to make a top priority of building out a wireless network that would eventually support 5,000 students on campuses in three North Carolina counties.

Market research confirms the popularity of WLANs: The 2009 Campus Computing Project survey reported that 56 percent of all classrooms in community colleges and 76 percent of all classrooms in four-year institutions now have Wi-Fi networks. The migration toward wireless is especially important in academic environments with their tech-savvy student populations.

“College campuses are the front line for wireless LANs,” says Loren Shalinsky, a senior analyst for the Dell'Oro Group. Shalinsky says college students come to campus armed with multiple Wi-Fi devices, and they expect to be able to connect all of these devices to the web from anywhere. 

Access Rules

Access is important, but colleges and universities have to balance openness with security and privacy concerns. For Central Carolina Community College, security was as important as connectivity, so much so that it became a major factor in choosing a manufacturer.

The college picked the Aruba Networks' WLAN gear because it offers security controls comparable to that of a wired network.

Central Carolina set up two separate wireless LANs on three of the four campuses where WLANs are deployed. The first, a staff network, requires users to go through a number of steps to access the college's LAN, while the guest network connects users to the public web.

Holder acknowledges that, as with any major implementation, his team faced some challenges, but he judges the overall deployment a success. “Once we got over the learning curve, we found the technology is very powerful,” he says.

Central Carolina Community College isn't alone in gleaning big benefits from WLANs that go beyond the convenience factor. Cost savings is also driving many deployments.

“The mantra on campus is to do more with less,” says Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, adding that while wireless certainly isn't free, it can be less expensive to deploy access points than wired gear.

Up to 600Mbps
The data rate organizations can expect from 802.11n networks

Source: Wi-Fi Alliance

West Chester University of Pennsylvania, which serves more than 14,400 students, is already seeing results from its still relatively new wireless deployment. In addition to a Wi-Fi network rollout to a portion of the outdoor campus, the university is deploying wireless LAN technology in several new dormitories it is building. The school estimates that it will save close to $1 million connecting 1,100 students to a wireless network in two recently built dorms versus connecting them to a wired LAN because the wireless access points and other gear are significantly less expensive than wired gear.

“WLAN technology was the right decision for us,” says Adel Barimani, vice president of information services and CIO for the university. “It is paying off for us in the reduced carbon footprint, electrical savings – and the students love it.”

Towson University outside of Baltimore also reports overall positive results from its WLAN rollout, which now includes more than 700 access points. If anything, the major issue facing the university's IT organization is the Wi-Fi network's ability to handle all of today's video apps.

“Wi-Fi can't keep up with applications like those that distribute high-definition, streaming video,” says Michael Bachman, director of information technology field support.

However, Bachman sees opportunities for wireless LANs to play a role in smart classrooms. For example, Bachman notes that instructors today are typically bound to the podium. Using inexpensive wireless devices such as iPads, instructors can move about more freely – using these devices to manage the classroom AV control system.

“With devices such as iPads, instructors will be able to leave the podium and circulate in the classroom, but still have full control of the AV system,” Bachman says. “Students are adopting e-textbooks and interacting with our course management systems using personal devices, so they need a fast WLAN connection and plenty of AC power outlets to leverage these multipurpose devices.”

Planning for Wireless

Making the most of a WLAN deployment requires some careful planning. Here are some tips for success.

  • Think “macro.” Look at wireless as part of your broader IT strategy.
  • Assess your capacity. Determine your needs in the near and long term, and use that to map out a WLAN strategy that can grow with your organization.
  • Do your homework. Test WLAN equipment under consideration from multiple vendors in a simulated environment.
  • Start slowly. Begin the wireless rollout in a single building or area to get a sense of real performance.
  • Involve your users. Communicate security and policy information to users.
  • Be vigilant about security. Continuously evaluate access and security policies.
Forrest MacCormack