WLANs Go to College

By Jim Geier

September 20, 2002

Colleges are finding compelling reasons to deploy wireless LANs. Learn what's prompting these schools to go wireless and what issues they need to consider.

The list of schools deploying wireless LANs is increasing every day. The University of Oklahoma, Stanford, Washington's American University and many others have already installed wireless LANs, and most other colleges are actively considering deployments. Let's take a closer look at the benefits of wireless in colleges and consider some potential issues.

Widespread, Mobile Network Access

Many colleges are finding beneficial reasons to install wireless LANs, mostly to provide mobile network applications to their students. In fact, schools have begun using the existence of wireless LAN access as a competitive advantage. These schools are targeting the growing number of students with laptops and expectations of accessing the Internet and school resources from anywhere on campus, such as classrooms, libraries, quads, and dormitories. Students are able to readily check email, surf the Web, access specialized school applications, check grades, and view transcripts. As a result, students make better use of their time.

WLANs Reduce Networking Costs

Many colleges are finding that wireless LANs save on costs, especially in networking new or renovated buildings. For example, the University of Southern Mississippi installed 300 wireless access points rather than rewire buildings on campus. The school is only paying approximately $9,000 per building for wireless, rather than $75,000 per building for a wired system. The savings comes not just from less wiring but also the corresponding reduction in installation labor.

Of course, cost savings is only one factor. Wireless LANs also provide broader, mobile access to the users.

Some schools, such as New England University, are very old and difficult to wire. In this case, it's impractical and cost prohibitive to install a traditional wired network. In order to save money and the historic nature of the school's buildings, a wireless LAN is really the only alternative.

802.11 Phones Enhance Security

In addition to providing network access for laptops and PDAs, a wireless LAN is an infrastructure that can support 802.11 wireless telephones. For example, the New Brunswick School in New Jersey installed portable 802.11 SpectraLink telephones to enable custodial staff and teachers to keep in contact as they move about the facilities. The enhanced communications offers a higher degree of security and better access to teachers from parents.

WLANs Augment Computer Rooms

It's expensive to establish and maintain computer rooms for students to utilize for accessing the Internet and completing lab assignments. Students must often wait in line for using a computer in a lab, which cuts into other activities. A wireless LAN, however, gives students access to needed resources using their own laptop from anywhere on campus at any time, even after the traditional computer room closes. This more evenly distributes network access to all students, enhancing student efficiency. Of course the school can also save the costs of running the computer lab.

Think About The Issues

Even though a wireless LAN offers many benefits, schools need to consider potential issues before diving into deployment. The following offers some items to consider:

  • Potential security threats. The 802.11 security mechanism, WEP (wired equivalent privacy), doesn't provide much protection because a hacker using common tools available from the Internet can decode WEP encrypted data with enough patience. A university is at risk because some students may find it "fun" to break through LAN security and make inappropriate use of school resources. Schools must deploy additional security mechanisms to protect sensitive information, such as grades and financial data.

  • Performance issues. The use of wireless LANs in a school requires bandwidth. For example, there could be a hundred students within close proximity (e.g., in nearby classrooms) actively accessing network resources. This can easily bog down a local access point. In order to accommodate a high density of users, schools should consider the use of an 802.11a network to maximize capacity.

  • Reduced battery life. Radio NICs consume significant power from laptop batteries, so students will quickly discover that they need to charge their batteries more often. Consequently, schools need to ensure it's convenient for students to plug into AC outlets throughout the campus, such as classrooms and libraries. In addition, students should be made aware of the possible use of 802.11 power saving mode to increase battery life.

Regardless of these issues, schools (especially universities) are installing wireless LANs all over. Within a couple years, the presence of a wireless LAN in schools will be commonplace. If you're a school and don't have plans to go wireless, you'd better get started!

Jim Geier provides independent consulting services to companies developing and deploying wireless network solutions. He is the author of the book, Wireless LANs (SAMs, 2001), and regularly instructs workshops on wireless LANs.

Join Jim for discussions as he answers questions in the 802.11 Planet Forums.

Can your local schools easily jump on the Wi-Fi band wagon? Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, Dec. 3-5 in Santa Clara, CA. One of our sessions will cover "Leveraging an 802.11 Backbone in Education."



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