Becoming a Wireless Campus...A Student Initiative

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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 class. 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 d'es a university maintain network security in the wide-open wireless LAN?

3. Site Survey/Planning was required to find the right locations for the wireless access points. Rather than contracting communications vendors for a complete analysis at a fairly high price tag, we used a map, a laptop with wireless software that shows signal strength, an access point and some general knowledge of where students gather to generate a site plan. The networking staff used their common sense to locate an access point site. Then they walked around with their laptop, checking how strong the signal was. By recording this information, we developed the site map, which then told how many access points were needed for the desired coverage. The number of access points determines cost. Because not enough funds were available, a strategic plan was needed to develop a phased-in funding and implementation plan.

4. Securing funding was a major step. When our student senate stepped forward to fund this new technology, it provided seed money for the quick start that was key to the success of this project. Even if there had been funding from other sources, it would have slowed the process in our situation because of the time it would have taken to get funding.

5. The development of an implementation plan was another major step. The student senate funded coverage for “student areas” as the first year of the plan. This funding was based upon X-number access points covering X-general locations. This brings us to the present day. Next year, the second year of the process will fund further coverage of the campus. The final year will increase the number of access points at locations that are saturated.

6. Future steps will be to gather funding for administrative areas to be covered. The College of Business (COB) has provided funding for access points to be installed in their new laptop classrooms as part of their COB Laptop Initiative. The administration may have to assist with providing access points for some colleges/departments.

7. As with any educational process, there should be an assessment of the effectiveness of this initiative. In most cases, wireless technology has added benefits that were not available before, and that would not be possible with wired Ethernet. For example, previously it was not possible for students to use their laptops while connected to the campus Ethernet out on the lawn. This is a new capability that would not have existed without the wireless initiative.

Networking Technologies

The network technologies that MSU selected were Lucent Orinoco WaveLan access points and PC cards. These are based on the IEEE 802.11B Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum at 2.4 GHz frequency. The WaveLan Turbo PC card is rated at 11 MB and the actual transmission speed seems very quick. The WaveLan PC cards come in three choices: bronze with no encryption, silver with 64 bit encryption and gold with 128 bit encryption. For encryption to work, both access point and PC card must match.

In select areas, Apple AirPorts were installed for cost saving benefits. The Networking staff informally compared AirPorts and WaveLan access points. They did find compatibility, and in some testing, the AirPort surpassed the WaveLan. Both Apple and Lucent WaveLan products were upgraded to the latest firmware patches. If an AirPort becomes saturated, a WaveLan access point will quickly be swapped in.

The access points were put into one virtual LAN, which is becoming known as MavNet (MSU’s sporting teams are the Mavericks). DHCP allows for control of access to the MavNet wireless network. Another decision was made to control the access to the wireless network: whether wide open, controlled by registered MAC addresses through DHCP, or controlled by a more sophisticated tool, such as QIP. MSU is using DHCP, while working on bringing up QIP.

If students have their own laptop and a wireless PC card, they go to the Laptop Help Center to get help loading the wireless drivers, to obtain quick instruction on use, and to register their PC card MAC address.

Student funding was used to jumpstart the Library Laptop Research Tool prototype project. These funds purchased five Lucent WaveLan Access Points, three IBM Thinkpads and three Apple iBooks. In addition, a storage/recharge cart and software were funded. Software loaded on the laptop aids in research and note taking. Students can check out a laptop as they enter the library and use the laptop from anywhere within the library to aid in their research. The access points cover the large open areas of the library, while also covering multiple floors. The stairwells, bathrooms and book stacks are areas that degrade the wireless signal. Connections are quickly restored upon returning to a better signal or when traveling from access point to access point.

The Student Senate Association funded the Campus Computer Store Laptop Loaner project to improve technology on the campus, and to further strengthen the wireless knowledge base while also providing increased computer access for students. Funding provided for the purchase of 20 laptops, 15 Dell Inspirons and five Apple iBooks. Dell wireless PC cards were purchased with the Inspirons. The iBooks were purchased with the wireless option, which provides a PC card that can be easily installed into the iBook. Both Dell and Apple wireless cards worked flawlessly with our installed access points. Software loaded on these machines is typical desktop productivity software: MS Office, e-mail, browser and ftp. These loaner laptops can be checked out of our campus computer store at no charge for two hours. They can be rented for longer periods, including weekends. This allows students to check out a laptop between classes and work wherever comfortable and convenient, all while connected to the Internet, e-mail and servers.

Another student-funded effort has students paying to lease computers with wireless PC cards. The COB had been working towards requiring all their students to lease laptops for several years. Several substantial donations from alumni helped the COB Laptop Initiative come into being. The implementation was targeted for the fall semester of 2000. The planning for these laptops happened to coincide with the investigation and discussion of the wireless initiative. Several concepts clicked together between laptops and wireless, and each worked off energies from the other. Laptop lease programs and wireless networking became a natural fit.

Each COB laptop that students lease includes a wireless Ethernet PC card. This allows students to use their laptops from anywhere in the 28 acres of MavNet wireless coverage. The cost savings is substantial given that the wireless LAN covers the whole campus, and that this coverage would not be possible with hard-wired Ethernet.

An HP laser printer was placed in each laptop classroom. Another networked laser printer was strategically positioned in a convenient student gathering location, making it possible for students to quickly print from wireless laptops on their way to class from their dorm or from study areas.

When buildings outside the local campus needed connections, directional wireless was explored as a solution. A wireless networking company was hired to install the first link to a hockey area three blocks from campus. Our networking staff closely observed the work of the company and came away with the confidence that they could do the job. The second direct wireless link was for the Aviation Department at the airport seven miles away from campus. Our networking staff completed this project with little difficulty and did experiments to prove the wireless link could successfully transmit over 15 miles.

 

Wireless Cell Phone Grants

In yet another wireless initiative, very important partnerships have been formed with wireless companies to make MSU a cellular wireless campus. Midwest Wireless and Nokia joined forces to donate 200 cell phones, a cell tower, and a wireless application server. The 600w cell tower was installed to provide improved coverage for cell phones on campus. These donations are to be used to train students on programming for cell phones and to develop creative uses of cell phones for educational purposes. The grant builds upon existing cellular engineering and maintenance programs provided at MSU and South Central Technical College located across the river in North Mankato, MN.

 

Congressional Grant

Augmenting the campus’ successes at becoming a “wireless valley,” in January 2001, the U.S. Congress awarded a financial grant to further the wireless technology efforts. U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht, who helped secure the funding for MSU, stated at the press conference announcing the grant, “The world is going to go wireless, and you are in front of that curve.” The grant will increase the number of wireless classrooms and provide students with an introduction to wireless personal data assistants (PDAs).

 

Conclusion

MSU has moved boldly into wireless technology. We found it a relatively easy technology to work with, especially when introduced with our COB laptop program. We found cost savings with wireless technology when compared to wiring old buildings or getting Ethernet access to areas that could not be wired. Developing wireless technology at MSU has taken cooperative efforts and funding from many groups. The cellular partnership, the Academic Computer Center staff, the networking staff, the Library, the COB Laptop Initiative, the U.S. Congress, the administration and the students all contributed funding or labor. Students in particular should be commended for pushing forward into this technology. The students came up with the funds to get prototypes going, giving the networking staff successful experience to start the campus rolling towards becoming, arguably, “the most wireless campus.”

 

Wayne Sharp is director of the Academic Computer Center at Minnesota State University, Mankato. The Academic Computer Center is a department within Information & Technical Services. He has led many student initiatives over his 23 years at MSU. Sharp earned an MBA from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and has taught for the Computer Science and Management departments for the past 17 years.

 

E-mail: wayne.sharp@pilot.mnsu.edu

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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