Becoming a Wireless Campus

Article excerpt

A Student Initiative

A Computer Information Science student, Peter Chase, sits in a group study area outside of the central computer lab and uses his laptop with a wireless PC card to connect to the campus LAN. Peter is with a group of students working on a project for ciasa. When asked about his use of Wireless Technology, he replies, "I like the freedom to be connected to the Internet wherever and whenever I want. You can find a place on campus where you can be comfortable to do your work; you're not confined to one area, as you would be if you had a wired connection." Student groups can now be found studying in new locations that were not previously utilized for studying, because they were not connected to the LAN. How did this new technology come about? What was the process that allowed wireless technology to overcome this campus? Who were the key players in this process?

In the spring of 1999, after serious debate, the Student Technology Committee (a subgroup of the Student Senate Association) of Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSU) voted to recommend that funding be provided to move MSU towards the wireless revolution. With that step, the students of MSU took an unprecedented action. They formally stated that they were willing to put their student monies into technology they had not seen on other campuses, by using a process model that they had not seen used at other campuses.

It would take great faith in the Information Technology Services (ITS) staff and a prototypical plan to provide the wireless technology coverage hoped for.

MSU is a beautiful campus built on fertile Midwest farmland at the edge of the Minnesota River Valley. There are 277 acres of land, with many acres of open green space, sporting fields, ravines and parking lots. The core campus sits on 47 acres, containing 10 large academic buildings and three large dormitories. At this point, we have covered over 28 acres (with more coverage when two new buildings open up shortly) and plan to place a "wireless umbrella" over the whole core campus within two more years.

The student technology committee, with advice and encouragement from the ITS staff, established a process model that would lead into the wireless technology age, while also maintaining a cautious approach. The three-year plan was developed to cover the whole core campus. The students chose to cover "common student gathering points" first, leaving coverage of academic classrooms to the administration to fund.

The Process Model

MSU moved to a wireless campus through the following seven-step process model. The Director of the Academic Computer Center (ACC), the networking staff and the student technology committee were the primary players in most steps of this process.

1. The ITS staff, including the networking group, attended technology conferences seeking out wireless information for more study. Bringing wireless vendors to campus for demonstrations was also part of this initiation step of the process. Contact was made with wireless vendors and manufacturers. Contacts with communications companies were also a great asset here.

2. After the initial investigative step, a prototype was developed to further enhance our knowledge of wireless technology. We chose to use the library because it was a large space whose staff was requesting an upgrade from wired technology. The library consists of four floors and over 166,180 square feet. The challenge of this large space is maintaining the signal strength through concrete, steel, books and shelving. This prototype system proved successful in further enhancing our networking skills, and built confidence that further planning would bring further wireless successes.

This step also forced several questions. Where could we conveniently order wireless NICs at a low price? What are the technical differences between the various brands of access points? How does a university maintain network security in the wide-open wireless LAN? …