MIT's Wireless Campus

By Naomi Graychase

January 31, 2007

Arguably the smartest students around have one of the best campus WLANs, complete with unique applications to keep students in touch with each other.

In December of 2006, MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) was named to the #2 spot on PC Magazine and The Princeton Review's Top 20 Wired Colleges list. (Villanova took the #1 spot.) The "wired" distinction is a bit of a misnomer, however, since MIT's campus is entirely covered by a wireless network.

Begun in 1999, MIT's campus-wide network was completed in the fall of 2005 and consists of nearly 3,000 access points (a combination of Avaya and Enterasys equipment run by the AirWave management platform) covering 9.4 million square feet of campus.

"The initial deployment was approximately 230 wireless access points," says Theresa M. Regan, Director of Operations and Infrastructure Services (OIS) for Information Services and Technology at MIT. "Between 1999 and 2004, we expanded the wireless network to approximately 800 wireless access points and experimented with various technologies and remote management. In January 2004, MIT made the commitment to become a ubiquitous wireless campus. We phased our deployment from the main group, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, through the academic buildings, ensuring coverage building-wide, including all floors (basement and upward). We extended the deployment in 2005 to the remaining administrative buildings and all residences."

According to Regan, approximately 9,000 faculty, staff, and students take advantage of MIT's WLAN every day.

Benjamin Gleitzman, a sophomore majoring in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, says the ubiquitous Wi-Fi didn't play a role in his decision to attend MIT, but he now finds the network indispensable.

"I had known MIT provided an extensive wireless network, but only discovered later the magnitude and scope of that coverage," says Gleitzman. "Unfortunately, I now take the blanket coverage for granted and feel deprived when traveling to other campuses where wireless coverage is not so ubiquitous."

Students and faculty use the network for academic purposes, such as conducting research or accessing online resources like lecture notes, as well as for communicating via e-mail and IM. And, of course, with 10,000 undergrads, there's no shortage of online gaming taking place.

According to Regan, the network provides bandwidth between 7 and 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) and offers seamless coverage across every inch of campus.

"I often travel to class with a laptop, and almost always connect wirelessly," says Gleitzman. "Even driving through campus in a car, I can sometimes take advantage of the network. Other than spotty coverage in some dormitories, I have been satisfied with the coverage. Occasionally, it is difficult to connect to specific wireless hubs on campus, but given the size of MIT's wireless network, the occasional delays are negligible."

The university, known for its strong emphasis on scientific research, has produced 63 Nobel laureates and 29 MacArthur fellows since its inception in 1861, along with an impressive cadre of tech entrepreneurs including the founders of Intel, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm. More recently, former MIT students founded Meraki Networks, a California-based company that produces hardware and tools intended to help "everyday people" build and maintain wireless mesh networks in their communities. Meraki evolved out of the MIT Roofnet project, which was not affiliated with the campus WLAN.

Among the experimental applications being put to use on the MIT network currently are iSPOTS and iFIND. iSPOTS "aims at describing changes in living and working at MIT by mapping the dynamics of the wireless network in real time," according to the project's Web site. It creates a variety of visual snapshots of use on the network. Some look like regular charts or graphs, and others look very much like infrared images, with dark areas representing no use and red areas demonstrating "hot" areas experiencing heavy use. Should the creature from the Predator movie suddenly make an appearance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it appears he would have no trouble finding a Wi-Fi user on which to snack.

Carlo Ratti, Director of the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT, says that the iSPOTS project has shown that "some communal spaces such as lounges, cafes, etc., are being used as working spaces and are becoming increasingly popular on campus." The deployment of a wireless network, he says, can "radically change the use of built space."

iFIND, also developed in Ratti's SENSEable City Lab, "aims to improve social networking through some kind of digitally augmented serendipity." It enables users to voluntarily opt into a tracking system that reveals their location on campus, the idea being that it sparks impromptu group meetings, collaborations and non-accidental social interactions.

"I have used iFIND," says Gleitzman, "but the service hinges on the quantity of users logged into the system. I can see the usefulness of the program for locating people on campus, but until more of my friends use iFIND, it is little more than a novelty. Sometimes, I would rather not be found at any moment."

The network is intended for use only by those on campus, but it is publicly available, and the college supports guest registrations for up to 14 days per year.

"We endorse application level security (i.e., VPN, SSL, etc.); therefore, the network is openly available," says Regan.



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