RealTime IT News

Universities Graduate to Wi-Fi

Wireless networks are going to the head of the class as universities nationwide embrace 802.11b networking and the Wi-Fi standard. From coast-to-coast educational institutions are grasping that cutting wired connections in the classroom makes sense to both students and a school's bottom line.

Washington's American University is the latest school to go totally wireless. The institution recently announced the 84-acre campus would be the first to offer its 10,000 students completely integrated communications.

With help from KPMG Consulting and Cingular Wireless, American University students will use cell phones for their voice calls and access points spread throughout the campus will allow people to check e-mail, surf the Web or get class updates from wireless personal digital assistants or laptops.

Wi-Fi in the Fall
The university said the new system, available this fall, will give students access to schedules, class information, grade reports and school transcripts on the mobile Web. The university also plans to send alerts to wireless students notifying them of cancelled classes, weather information and school events.

School administrations see the eventual replacement of dorm phones with cell phones equipped with voice mail and calling plans that would cut in half the cost of a traditional wired phone system.

American University isn't alone in embracing Wi-Fi and wireless on campus. From small agriculture colleges to bastions of high technology, educational institutions are choosing Wi-Fi as a way to improve student mobility while reducing infrastructure costs.

The Wi-Fi Pay Off
At the University of Southern Mississippi, officials have put in place 300 wireless access points rather than rewire buildings on campus. The school says a single building, on average, would cost $75,000 to rewire. Adding wireless coverage costs just $9,000 per building.

Carnegie Mellon is working with Lucent Technologies as part of a $1 million wireless network covering its 100-acre Pittsburgh campus. Network engineers refer to such complete coverage as "a wireless cloud."

Once thought of as an agriculture school or "farm-boy college," the State University of New York's College of Agriculture and Technology in Morrisville is now considered a high-tech hot-bed. Morrisville's entry into wireless networking earned it the ranking of "most wired" two-year school last year by Yahoo! Internet Life magazine.

Ideal for a wireless environment, Morrisville's small campus with classrooms gathered around an academic center means students can roam through the cafeteria, student union and dorms without going beyond the nearly 500-foot range of installed access points.

Another component of Wi-Fi on campus is the concept of "nomadic computing." Because students and faculty with laptops and PDAs are no longer restricted to an Ethernet port, information once limited to the classroom is now available in the library, the student center or the commons.

Questions Remain
Bill Steele, of Cornell University's Press Service, says the four-year university recognized Morrisville's accomplishments, but has decided to go slower with its foray into Wi-Fi. Cornell's Red Rover wireless program was borne from a $300,000 Intel grant paying for laptops and base stations. The university now provides wireless access to many of its buildings, but has yet to approach total coverage of the 745-acre campus in Ithaca, NY.

Cornell's more than 19,000 students can purchase a $100 network card for laptops and access the wireless Web from inside the library, computing centers and other schools. However, access points are stationed only indoors. The university is now making plans to add wireless PDAs to the mix of devices using the Red Rover network.

While Wi-Fi has made great inroads on U.S. campuses, problems found elsewhere in a wireless society require attention of educational administrators. University officials report that wireless networks are difficult to design, Wi-Fi puts a heavier load on laptop batteries, universities are required to create new policies governing how the Wi-Fi networks will be used, and the security concerns surrounding transferring confidential data through the air.

At Carnegie Mellon University, such policies include banning devices that might interfere with wireless networks operating in the 2.4 GHz space. This means cordless phones, wireless audio components, even Apple's popular AirPort 802.11b access points are banned from use by the general population.