Dec 15 2020

Outdoor Wi-Fi Expands Access for College Students

Social distancing guidelines highlight a new role for outdoor connectivity on higher education campuses.

At Lewis University in Illinois, COVID caused administrators to do a rapid rethink around issues of student connectivity.

“We looked for opportunities to continue to provide access to our campus resources while still respecting things like social distancing,” says CIO LeRoy Butler, whose team deployed Cisco Aironet 1560 access points to create Wi-Fi zones in parking lots and other outdoor spaces. “It gives them a way to safely access resources on campus, without having to actually go into the buildings.”

Around the country, colleges have leveraged outdoor Wi-Fi in recent months as a way to make academic resources available even when indoor activities are constrained.

RELATED: See how colleges are accomplishing outdoor Wi-Fi initiatives.

College Staff and Students Reap Benefits of Outdoor Wi-Fi

At The Ohio State University, administrators have deployed more than 300 HPE Aruba AP-375 and HPE Aruba AP-377 APs to create outdoor connectivity at multiple regional campuses.

“We don’t normally cover parking lots, but at the start of COVID, we didn’t know if people wanted to stay 6 feet apart or 100 feet apart, so we wanted them to be able to be in their vehicles with their windows up and still do their business,” says Mike Hiatt, director of enterprise networking.

Upgrading and expanding Wi-Fi infrastructure to extend coverage to outdoor areas isn’t new, of course, but such efforts have gained steam in recent years as colleges seek to deliver seamless connectivity across their campuses. Today, these investments deliver an added level of convenience for students in virtual classes or those who may not have high-quality access to broadband elsewhere.

“There are students and staff who may not have really good access, if they’re trying to download a textbook for a class or if they are between classes and just need a place to connect,” Hiatt says. “If they are taking a mix of online and in-person classes, they just may not have enough time to get home between classes.”

Outdoor Wi-Fi has helped to close these gaps, while also addressing social-distancing limitations arising from the pandemic.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Get assessment and planning strategies for outdoor Wi-Fi.

At Lewis University, parking lot Wi-Fi has helped to support activities in a number of ways. In addition to using it to attend online classes, says Butler, “our residential students are streaming videos and doing recreational things.”

In addition, he says, “among our graduate population, who are mostly working adults, this gives them an opportunity to access campus resources even at times when buildings are closed. For our part-time and commuter students, it gives them that same opportunity to come to campus during nontraditional hours and still have access to network resources.”

Staff benefit from expanded outdoor Wi-Fi, too, says Butler.

“Our police department has used it to access information without having to go back to their offices. Our facilities services staff and baseball coaches can access information remotely,” he says. “That wasn’t the primary reason for doing it, but it’s been a nice value-add.”

At the University of Kentucky, the information services team has erected 15 Wi-Fi tents — some 20 by 40 feet in size and some 20 by 60 feet — supported by Ubiquiti GigaBeam and Cisco technologies.

“If I have a 300-person classroom, and I have to go to 25 percent occupancy, those other people have to go somewhere. When you cannot use the physical space, outside is the only place you can go,” says Rick Phillips, executive director for networking and infrastructure.

Pre-COVID, the university had schedules for on-campus students. “They might have a class in building A and then a class in building B. There was a flow from class to class that was part of their schedule,” Phillips says.

But the pandemic created a new need. “They might have an in-person at 9:00 a.m. and a virtual at 10:00 a.m., and we needed a place for them to go so they could get to those online classes. We didn’t want students to struggle getting from their online class to their in-person class because of transportation times.”

Experts say these institutions are on the right track.

“Students without internet or with poor connections may be unable to complete assignments or join synchronous discussions,” says Emily Bouck West, deputy executive director at the nonprofit Higher Learning Advocates. Enhanced Wi-Fi accessibility on campus “would ensure that these students were at the very least able to complete coursework and participate.”

Front-End Planning Pays Off for Outdoor Wi-Fi on Campus

For colleges looking to deploy Wi-Fi in outdoor spaces, experts recommend several best practices for powering APs and connecting to internet backhaul.

“For power, you can potentially leverage light poles in the parking lot to mount access points, but you will likely need to adapt the voltage,” says Bruce Miller, vice president of enterprise marketing for Cambium Networks. “Some folks also are using solar to provide local power to those access points.”

Backhaul may also be available in a number of ways. “You can pull fiber or cable, but you can also do it wirelessly, which is very quick and cost-effective,” Miller says. “If you are doing something temporary and quick, wireless will be the best way to do that. You can, for example, put an antenna on the building, then put another antenna on the light pole, and then connect the two to create a hop from the wired network out to the wireless network.”

For those looking to go beyond parking lots — to broadcast Wi-Fi across wider outdoor spaces — a mesh strategy offers the opportunity to string together multiple APs and cover a larger territory.

“If you have wide areas without enough cable, you can double up your access points to create a mesh,” says Cisco Meraki’s Director of Wireless Product Management Jayanthi Srinivasan. “You won’t have the same level of throughput and performance, but it’s definitely a way to connect large areas.”

Colleges trying to minimize the cost of outdoor W-Fi will likely want to do as little digging as possible. At Lewis University, a baseball clubhouse serves as the backhaul hub for multiple surrounding parking lots. By building a wireless jump from the clubhouse to the APs, “we didn’t have to bury any cable or tear up any of the parking lots,” Butler says.

If you do it right the first time, you won’t have to move access points or change the positioning later on.

Jayanthi Srinivasan Director of Wireless Product Management, Cisco Meraki

The most cost-effective deployments, experts say, are the product of good front-end planning.

“The cost of the hardware for an outdoor deployment is smaller than the cost of deployment itself, where there can be a lot of expense associated with labor,” Srinivasan says. “You want to do a site survey, and you want to plan ahead. If you do it right the first time, you won’t have to move access points or change the positioning later on.”

Looking ahead, administrators who have deployed outdoor Wi-Fi say this mode of connectivity will likely remain a staple of the campus experience, even after COVID.

“It will continue to have a tremendous amount of value for us,” Butler says. “Especially for our commuting students who need a lot of flexibility, this gives them a way to use our network resources in nontraditional hours.”

At OSU, too, Hiatt says, outdoor access is likely here to stay: “We decided basically to do it as if it were permanent. We don’t have any intention of taking them out. There is a need for this, even if it’s a niche need.”

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