With 33,000 devices on the Kennesaw State network daily, outdoor Wi-Fi helps to carry the load and allow students to work in outdoor areas across campus. 

Colleges Tackle the Great Outdoors in Campus Wi-Fi Upgrades

Colleges invest in Wi-Fi coverage outdoors to keep pace with expanding demand.

It’s hard to escape the internet at Kennesaw State University. Located about 25 miles northwest of Atlanta, the 36,000-student campus is awash in bandwidth, thanks to recent upgrades to its wireless network. 

Aging network infrastructure, the smartphone explosion and an exponential increase in video consumption are driving schools like Kennesaw not only to upgrade their Wi-Fi networks, but to extend them to every corner of campus.

But the biggest driver of such initiatives is that students have come to expect high-speed, 24/7 access to the internet no matter where they are, says Davide Gaetano, associate executive director of infrastructure engineering at KSU.

“More and more students are used to having high-speed access at home, and they tend to want at least that at school,” says Gaetano. “Being able to sustain that higher bandwidth across more clients and devices is kind of a double whammy.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how Kennesaw State is using data analytics to reduce student failure rates!

Universities Add More APs to Increase Network Density

The ability to access coursework from any location is a key reason why institutions are adopting campuswide Wi-Fi, says James Wiley, principal analyst for research advisory firm Eduventures.

“Students bringing their own devices to access learning resources from cafeterias, dorms and libraries are a big driver,” Wiley says. “But it’s also about providing the same experience to students no matter where they are on campus.”

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Kennesaw State University students use outdoor wifi accessibility to collaborate outside. Photography: Ryan Gibson.

Even as more universities are taking a closer look at extending Wi-Fi outside the classroom, Wiley says, this is still a bleeding-edge topic for many.

“I get very tactical questions from institutions trying to solve a particular problem, like how to get Wi-Fi in a courtyard,” he says. “But not a lot of institutions are thinking through what this really means for them.”

In fact, a 2017 EDUCAUSE survey revealed that half of college students say the outdoor Wi-Fi on their campuses is poor or fair at best. But colleges like KSU, Lamar University in Texas and the College of Charleston in South Carolina are working to change that. Over the past two years, KSU has doubled the number of access points on its Kennesaw and Marietta campuses, says Gaetano. 

One reason for the increase is the university’s move from 2.4 gigahertz 802.11n devices to dual-band 2.4/5GHz APs from Cisco. At 5GHz, the 802.11ac devices deliver higher bandwidth over shorter distances, so you need more of them.

“Everybody now has a wireless device, or two or three or eight,” Gaetano says. “You need a lot more access points to handle that density at 5GHz. That was one of the big drivers for us.”

Indoors, Kennesaw uses Cisco Aironet 3802 APs; outdoors, it relies on ruggedized Cisco 3702s. In addition to waterproofing the equipment, the key to extending Wi-Fi outside the classroom is picking APs with directional antennas, Gaetano says. 

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Internet connection on mobile devices is essential for KSU students. Photography: Ryan Gibson.

“Because you’re mounting APs on the outside of buildings, you want the antenna facing outward to give maximum coverage to outdoor spaces and minimize interference with indoor access points.”

Outdoor Wi-Fi also helps save KSU’s budget-conscious students some money. Roughly 33,000 devices access the network each day, about half of them smartphones. And while nearly all students have 4G access to the internet from their phones, they can’t necessarily afford to pay for all that data.

“Students tend to go on pay-as-you-go plans with relatively low data limits,” Gaetano says. “My gut tells me they keep costs down by riding on Wi-Fi when they can.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Read more about institutions using data analytics to improve network performance!

Institutions Work to Minimize Network Interference

When Lamar University first deployed its wireless network several years ago, it was mostly as an experiment, says Jacob Bennefield, manager of network services.

“Back then, Wi-Fi was more of a luxury, and our coverage was spotty,” he says. “But around 2014, we decided the university needed better coverage. For students coming into school, it had become a necessity for collaboration.”

About two years ago, Lamar began upgrading the wireless network on its Beaumont, Texas, campus. Support went from roughly 100 APs to more than 500 Ruckus R700 and ruggedized T-301s, running off centralized ZoneDirector 5000 WLAN controllers. Each Ruckus AP can handle more than 450 concurrent users, or about six times as many as the older devices.

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Because the 270-acre campus is located in the middle of a residential area, interference from private Wi-Fi networks was a potential problem, says Senior Network Analyst Steven Veron. To solve that, the university’s IT team set its outdoor APs to automatically change channels to find the clearest signal, and it runs them at lower power to avoid overlap.

Lamar started out with a pilot in its education building, says Bennefield, using AirMagnet Pro software to map out where to place the APs. To complete the deployment, Lamar partnered with a third-party company that worked closely with facilities and administrative staff.

That type of cross-departmental collaboration is important, Veron says. “No IT department should do it on their own. You need to be partnered 100 percent with the student body and the academic leadership.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how universities are taking advantage of network upgrades on their campus!

No Need to Sacrifice Historic Preservation for Network Expansion

Extending the internet to the great outdoors can involve considerations that staff don’t normally encounter inside buildings, notes Jason Trinklein, wireless network manager at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

When your campus is nearly 250 years old and located in the heart of a historic city, installing wireless gear outdoors quickly becomes a sensitive issue. IT must ensure that equipment meets historic preservation requirements.

“If the Board of Architectural Review didn’t like how an AP looked, they would tell us to take it down,” says Trinklein. “So, a lot of our APs are painted with nonmetallic materials to match the color of the historical pole they’re mounted to.”

Starting last November, the college began ripping out its old wireless network and replacing it with Aruba AP-315s indoors and rugged AP-275s outside across the 900-acre campus. Weatherproof gear is especially important in a climate like South Carolina’s, which has high humidity and frequent thunderstorms.

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Photography: Robert Seale.

“Our last infrastructure was not reliable outdoors,” says Trinklein. “Lightning hits our campus all the time, and even a nearby strike could take serv­ice offline in various parts of the campus. We have not seen a single Aruba AP go offline since installing them.” cost-effective labor

The college went from 700 APs to nearly 1,100 in just eight months, relying heavily on students to install the new devices. This saved a huge amount of money and gave students valuable experience, says Trinklein. 

“Students are significantly less expensive than contract labor, and they loved the work,” he says. “Some of them were actually tearing up when the work was all over.”

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Effective outdoor coverage requires close coordination between IT and facilities staff, says Davide Gaetano at Kennesaw State University.  Photography: Robert Seale.

Reliable Wi-Fi has become a standard expectation at universities, just as it has at businesses, restaurants, libraries and other public spaces. The college didn’t want its 11,000 students wondering whether wireless access inside a particular building or area of the campus would work, says Trinklein.

“Everyone has to have a minimum expectation we can meet for service, and it’s not acceptable for those expectations to be missed,” he says. “In the past, people would be very aware of wireless serv­ice because it wouldn’t work correctly all the time. Now people are barely even aware there is such a thing as Wi-Fi because it just works.”

Ryan Gibson
Oct 11 2018