Dartmouth: Creating a Wi-Fi Monster

By Gerry Blackwell

April 20, 2005

The poster child for Ivy League use of wireless networks is pushing past its already impressive roots toward a future covering the 'triple play'—data, voice, and video—for everyone on campus.

Dartmouth College, a 200-year-old Ivy League university in Hanover, N.H., has become the poster child for Wi-Fi on campus, largely thanks to the vision of one man, the school's director of technical services, Brad Noblet.

Back in 2001, Noblet led Dartmouth to become one of the first colleges to implement a campus-wide 802.11b network. That network, which included 640 Cisco Systems Aeronet access points and cost about $1.2 million, gave students, faculty and staff high-speed Internet access everywhere on the mile-square campus, inside its 150 buildings and outside. It even accommodated voice over Wi-Fi, a bleeding edge application at the time.

Now, Noblet is spearheading a massive upgrade of the college's wireless infrastructure, implementing a new 802.11g network based on four network switches and eventually about 1,600 access points from Aruba Networks. The school has so far installed about 600 of the Aruba APs. Total cost, interestingly, will only come to about $700,000.

Why such a huge upgrade? "People don't want to plug in anymore," Noblet says. "They want voice, video and Internet access—everything they get on the wired side—on wireless now."

Accommodating more voice on the wireless network was one big motivation for the upgrade. Currently, there are "a few hundred" Cisco 7000 series wireless IP phones on the network, about 150 Vocera Badges (the wearable, voice-activated Wi-Fi phones from Vocera Communications), and another 300 to 400 users with VoIP softphones on their laptops.

The fact that there is no cell phone service on campus increases demand for voice over Wi-Fi. Demand for voice capacity in general has also increased in part because of the school's unique approach to telephony on campus.

The original Wi-Fi network was part of a much larger overhaul of the school's aging telecommunications infrastructure—which included separate voice, video and data networks—and also of its telecom and IT management. It was Noblet's "convergence" strategy, bringing voice, data and video together on an IP network and consolidating network management, that allowed him to cost-justify wireless in the first place.

"Convergence allowed us to save about two thirds of what would be the cost to rebuild three separate networks that were dying," he explains. "And because we could leverage the personnel from these three groups, we were able to cut operations costs back by about 50 percent."

As part of that radical restructuring, Dartmouth rethought how it provided voice services. It now offers students in residence halls unlimited long distance within the U.S., bundled with their dorm fees. Faculty and staff are charged only a flat fee of $13 a month per person for all telephony, including unlimited domestic long distance and video services. How was he able to do this?

"We were negotiating a pretty aggressive [long distance] rate, as low as a penny and half a minute," Noblet explains. "And later, with VoIP, we were able to reduce that to somewhat less. It's getting close now to where they start paying us." He was also able to reduce head count by three full-time positions, because he no longer needed as many clerical staff to manage accounting and billing for telephone services.

The end result is lots of demand for voice capacity, more and more of it coming from wireless users.

Another big motivator for the new Wi-Fi infrastructure is video. The school offers 65 IPTV channels, which more and more users want to access over wireless. Some of it is entertainment programming for students in dorms—again, included in their dorm fees—and some of it is educational programming. "Video is becoming much more strategic in teaching and learning," Noblet notes.

Why is a college in the entertainment TV business, though? "For the same reason we run a PBX and don't just let Verizon provide service," he says. "Because we want to control the access of communications services on campus and control the quality of the feeds—but mostly because we're getting a better deal when we wholesale [buy] the content."

The new Aruba infrastructure will support more wireless streaming video—somewhere between four and six concurrent video streams per access point.

Even without the increased demand for wireless video and voice, the school would have needed more wireless capacity and a denser population of access points to support seamless roaming.

"Wireless has changed the way people live, work and play here," Noblet says. "Before, I was pulling; now, I'm being pushed. I've got people saying, 'Why can't I do this?' and 'Why can't I have this?'"

"The original wireless network was architected for access, not performance," he says. "And people are doing more and more interesting things now. You're sharing 11Mbps, which is really 5 or 6Mbps, and you often have 22 to 25 users banging away on an access point all at the same time. They're not just doing Web pages either. It's streaming radio and video. Bandwidth requirements just keep going up and up."

"We would have needed to plan for some kind of upgrade," he says. "We decided to be more strategic. We decided to respond to the demand for the future."

The move to Aruba infrastructure provides additional benefits. Aruba's wireless switching approach means the college can expand the access point population in "a logical, measured way." It also means it's possible to have access points sitting next to each other without interfering, and to do efficient load balancing.

Aruba's thin access point architecture means lower-cost access points. Tripling the number of access points at prices paid for the original Aeronet APs would have been "wicked expensive," Noblet observes. Thin access points also enable more centralized network management, which helps further reduce network operations costs.

Dartmouth College will be using wireless elsewhere as well. It's installing point-to-point "wireless fiber" links using technology from GigaBeam to extend bandwidth services to off-campus facilities such as the university hospital. GigaBeam's WiFiber solution, which uses licensed 71-76 GHz, 81-86 GHz, and 92-95 GHz bands, provides one Gigabit per second of bandwidth—equivalent to 647 T1 lines or 1,000 DSL connections.

"Basically, you have the cost of wireless with the same capacity as fiber," Noblet says.

What is it about wireless and Dartmouth College? It may have started with Noblet's vision of what wireless could do for the school, but as he says, user demand is driving it now, as it does on campuses across the country. Many have taken the same route, but with its latest initiatives, Dartmouth will likely pull into the lead again.



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