University MTU Installations

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While recent technologies have made inroads into provisioning high-speed access to multiple-tenant units (MTUs), such as office complexes, apartments and hotels – the future landscape of university broadband services awaits untapped. This article provides insight into the future of MTU broadband services as related to universities. It evaluates the mediums that will distribute such services, and the article looks at the current opportunities and challenges associated with deploying high-speed access for university IT personnel looking to upgrade their facilities. It will showcase how one university in the Midwest is managing the challenges associated with providing 21st century Internet services to its off-campus student residences, as well as examples of a range of university-focused Internet service models. This article explains the following:

- the current level and anticipated demand for broadband access and services within the university MTU market

- the relative appeal and drawbacks of xDSL (copper-based), cable, and wireless technologies as potential conduits of future broadband services

- the unique challenges associated with provisioning high-speed Internet access and broadband services to university MTUs (technical, access-oriented)

- the solutions to enable university MTU managers to provision broadband services and access in the university MTU market

- some examples of potential university Internet services and pricing models

- a real-life example of how one Midwest university is meeting the tech challenge

- the criteria to keep in mind when selecting high-speed Internet equipment.

While recent technologies have enabled MTU buildings, such as office complexes, apartments and hotels, to be wired for high-speed Internet access and services, university buildings, such as dormitories and other residential complexes, classrooms and campus libraries remain largely under served. Yet, growing numbers of students are motivated to harness the Internet's strengths to stay informed about campus activities and class projects, register for classes online, or stay in touch with family members and friends back home. This presents an enormous opportunity for universities to enrich and support a dynamic learning environment by delivering high-speed access and services to student housing and other campus installations. Hence, after carefully considering a wide range of service and equipment options, determining and evaluating realistic needs, and preparing for potential challenges, academic institutions can tap into cost-effective and proven technologies to enjoy high-speed access today and in the future.

Today's Internet use is so ubiquitous that most high school students include Internet access as an important consideration when evaluating colleges and universities. In-room, high-speed connections are in heavy demand. Additional amenities like Internet-based academic tools and data, campus information, online course registration, e-mail and in-room network technologies that allow roommates to share peripherals like PCs and printers without interrupting phone service are also popular, and give schools a marketing edge. However, to meet this growing demand successfully, campus IT managers must carefully evaluate a range of high-speed solutions and their corresponding challenges.

Determining the Medium

When universities contemplate broadband access, one of the first steps is to decide which option, either coaxial cable, xDSL or wireless technologies, to use to connect the building to the actual "pipe." While each solution is capable of delivering broadband connections and services, each may also present challenges when the unique needs of student residential buildings are considered.

In the case of cable, for example, operators have heavily invested in upgrading networks to accommodate high-speed, two-way Internet data traffic. However, most student residences are currently only wired for one-way data, which means upgrading these systems requires costly and disruptive re-cabling. In addition, the aggregated nature of MTUs mean that Internet speeds diminish as multiple users share the same cable lines. Speeds slow further as new students are added to the system over time.

Wireless technology may initially seem to be a better, more "future-friendly" choice. However, while wireless is capable of delivering the required high-speeds, the technology is still in its relative infancy, and can prove extremely expensive. Issues like reliability and security are not yet proven compared to alternatives. For these reasons, wireless is not as widespread in the U.S. as it is in Europe.

In contrast, DSL, any grade, is a mature technology. It runs over existing copper telephone wires and appears ideally suited to the needs of university installations. However, DSL also presents some challenges. First, DSL is a point-to-point technology, requiring a direct connection from the telecommunications carrier's central office to the user's PC. In the case of a densely populated residential building, multiple lines are required to serve multiple users. This means that as users are added, additional lines must be installed. This can be a costly and disruptive proposition. And, finally, because DSL utilizes a copper voice line, additional filters or splitters must be installed to avoid interference and to maximize connection quality.

New Network Options

Fortunately, there are now scalable, high-density network systems that enable universities to deploy high-speed Internet access to their buildings easily and cost-effectively. Based on access concentrator or stackable architecture, the systems are designed for installation in the central wiring closet or basement of a multi-tenant building. They work seamlessly with any existing copper wiring system, regardless of grade, and regular phone service is never interrupted when a student accesses the Internet.

In addition, these network systems are compatible with any high-speed connection to the wide area network (WAN), such as T-1 lines, cable modem connections or fiber, as well as xDSL. The WAN connection is linked to the network system in the wiring closet. From there, the system delivers data to individual dorm rooms or apartments at rates of up to 1 megabit per second (Mbps) over the existing copper wiring. This rate is three times faster than traditional consumer DSL, and more than 20 times faster than dial-up modems.

By adding network interfaces that utilize either copper wire or a wireless link, a university can distribute Internet access and other broadband services to outlying dormitories and buildings in a garden-style arrangement, or to remote campuses. Thus, from a single point of access in a building, an entire complex can be provisioned for broadband services without any re-cabling.

Some platforms now available for university housing are plug-and-play, which automatically connects students to the Internet when they launch their Web browser. A user simply connects an in-room adapter to a PC's Ethernet port. Automatic configuration eliminates the need for IP managers to spend time helping each new student get online. There is no need for a technician to visit a room or apartment to install software, thus significantly decreasing operational costs.

With these new networks in mind, it is also necessary for university IT managers to determine their network's speed criteria. For example, as demand for broadband access grows, it has been easy to adopt a "more is better" approach to network speeds. However, 1.5 Mbps and higher can be an expensive and wasted prospect, since accessing e-mail and downloading content are generally the main interest of a student or professor. Consequently, 384 kilobits per second (Kbps) is entirely sufficient to meet most communication and entertainment demands. And, since most new network solutions are built to deliver speeds of 1 Mbps automatically, these solutions comfortably and affordably exceed both current and near-future needs and applications.

Additional Options

New network technologies usually also include options to customize a university's system, offer specialized services and features, and even help offset system costs. For example, Web portal capabilities can be built into some systems, enabling universities to create branded pages. Students enjoy high-speed access in addition to specialized Web-based services, such as Intra-net access, to stay informed about campus activities. Specialized content Web portals provide enhanced services and access to local community, e-commerce and interactive capabilities. In addition, portals can be created to schedule room repairs or maintenance.

To minimize the costs normally associated with these multi-service systems, there are also remote management systems that can virtually eliminate the need for on-site visits when provisioning services to students or staff. These self-installable solutions are cost-effective and highly adaptable to the needs of university property owners. The best remote management systems streamline user configuration and address management, traffic shaping and firewalling.

Universities can further defray system costs by directly provisioning Internet services to students for a fee. In this case, the university acts as a service provider and bundles the monthly Internet access rate into the fee already charged for student housing, telephone and cable television services. By privatizing and charging for services, universities avoid pitfalls such as family members having unauthorized access to a student's broadband access. Some schools are even beginning to consider models that charge students for the amount of bandwidth they actually utilize. If a student consumes a huge amount of bandwidth, they pay more. The fact that some academic institutions are now open to charging student access fees indicates how much the culture of the Internet has changed as commercial interests have come to dominate it. Even the popular campus technology guide published by Educause, an association of colleges, universities and technology companies, suggests that prospective students ask about fees for access in the dorms or through a dial-up connection.

Case Study: Michigan Technological University

In the early spring of 2000, Michigan Technological University decided it was time to upgrade its outdated cable system and offer 1 Mbps broadband access to an entire on-campus residential complex. Specializing in engineering and technology, this university boasts a ranking as one of the top 50 state universities and top 100 national universities, according to U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges. As a result, its technology-savvy students don't want to settle for anything less than the most cutting-edge technology available at the fastest speeds.

Charged with this responsibility, Brenda Helminen, Michigan Tech's director of telecommunications engineering, began looking for a more effective and efficient solution for a portion of the university's Internet access system. Functioning as their own service provider, the IT staff ran into several shortcomings while trying to deliver high-speed Internet access via cable modems to the students in Daniell Heights, a popular on-campus apartment complex of 54 buildings.

First, the university was only able to devote two pairs of CATV channels, providing 8Mbps to their data service. When these channels were heavily used, Ethernet collisions caused a severe decrease in the overall performance of the system. Also, noise permeated through the entire system, causing performance degradation. This is a common problem in apartment complexes where TVs, refrigerators, stereos, and other similar devices can create noise and disrupt performance. Hence, Michigan Tech elected to review its options for upgrading or replacing its cable modem system.

After evaluating a range of solutions, they ultimately chose one that cost-effectively utilized its legacy copper infrastructure. The new network now delivers 1 Mbps speeds, 20 times faster than a dial-up modem, to multiple in-room LANs. No construction within the complex was required and, as a result, the system was up and running quickly, delivering access to the 352 apartments in the 54 building-complex. Moreover, by installing a network that is easier and more cost-effective to maintain, university IT staff are free to address larger telephony and networking issues on campus. According to Helminen, student response to the system's speed and reliability has been overwhelming, and staff members have responded positively to the system's ease. There are now plans to redo the networking system in additional campus locations.

Selecting the Right Equipment

When evaluating potential high-speed Internet systems, university IT staff should look for solutions that integrate the Internet "pipe" equipment, installation, custom software solutions, training, service and maintenance. Consider the following:

- a full range of on-premise products specifically designed to provision every type or layout of MTU building

- a solution that protects privacy and supports VPNs, firewalls, e-mail and Web hosting, as well as a range of broadband services beyond high-speed access

- a solution that allows for remote management of multiple installations from a single network operation center, where students and other users can then self-provision services without needing special client software or configuration.

With these considerations in mind, universities can confidently work to develop a customized network solution that enhances student life, supports professional endeavors and encourages 21st century learning. As a result, universities will be well served and prepared to meet their communications challenges today and in the future.


Mark Allen
Tut Systems, Inc.
mallen@tutsystems.com

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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