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Campuses Move Toward Wireless Computing

Campuses Move Toward Wireless Computing

Students arriving at Howard University this fall will find one of the latest information technology amenities available to them in their dormitory rooms — the ability to access the campus computer network through a wireless connection.
Students, faculty and staff will, with the aid of special modems, have wireless access to Howard’s data network on laptop computers. The innovation represents the newest wave of information technology crashing on academia’s shores.
“[Users] will appreciate the mobility that [the wireless connection] gives them,” says Dr. A. Burl Henderson, chief information officer at the 11,000-student school.
The move makes Howard one of the first historically Black institutions in the nation to deploy a wireless data network for the benefit of its academic community. How the school vaulted to a leading position with wireless technology results from both long-term strategic planning and the improvised early adoption of wireless to reach past the development of its conventional “hard wired” campus network.
“Wireless was part of our overall strategic plan, but we decided to bring it in earlier to give students data access in the dorm rooms,” says Joe Collins, associate vice-president for information systems and services.
Officials at institutions like Howard believe that their communities, especially students, will heartily embrace this wireless revolution in much the same way that American consumers are rushing to buy cellular phones and wireless computing devices such as the Palm Pilot.
“You can never give students too much access to data,” says Rodney Little, assistant director of telecommunication and network services at Howard.
Indeed, many students have come to expect highly technologically advanced campuses and many cite information technology amenities as something that could make or break a campus.
Higher education officials say that wireless technology offers several advantages to campuses that are developing data networks for their communities. For campuses that already have highly developed infrastructures, including fully wired campus buildings with data ports in classrooms and dormitory rooms, a wireless network can extend the access range of an institution’s existing network.
This means that students and others can access campus data in common areas, such as the student union lounges, outdoor locations or other places where it would have been difficult to establish hard wire data port connections.
At other schools, which are in the beginning or the middle of developing their wired infrastructures, wireless technology can offer an affordable solution that gives students and others immediate access to data.
Though Howard officials had already provided wired data connections around the campus and in dormitory computer labs, they recognized this past spring that it would be possible to develop a wireless network by this fall that students could access from their dormitory rooms and from common areas on the campus. The dorms were already in line to get new telephone and cable television connections.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall, campus officials are unveiling a wireless network devoted primarily to extending the range of the campus’ existing wired network. School officials had already installed data connections in the undergraduate student dormitory rooms, according to Perry Brunelli, associate director for network engineering at the university.
The wireless network will enable UW’s 40,000 students, as well as its faculty and staff, to access in common areas inside and outside campus buildings.
“It’s a move to new locations where the campus network hasn’t existed before,” Brunelli says.
Officials say it’s not enough for a modern campus to wire its buildings and not consider wireless networking. “It opens up new opportunities,” says Brunelli, who believes the mobility gained by network users can improve productivity.
UW officials note that among campuses that have established a wireless connection to the campus network, it’s expected that 10 percent of the university community will use it. Campus technology officials say they will initially have 400 wireless laptop modems for sale this fall to accommodate the early adopters. Information technology officials at the university expect to see usage of the wireless network to reach 4,000 users within a couple of years.
The cost of wireless modems for laptops range from just under $100 for a MacIntosh model to a range of $120 to $150 for an IBM PC-based laptop. The cost of a desktop PC wireless modem is more expensive, ranging upwards from $300 to $400, according to
At Howard, officials believe its wireless network connection in the dormitories will prove popular among students. Instead of
having to purchase modems, the university will provide them for the academic year for a deposit fee of $25. With a deposit fee plan, students, in particular, are not stuck with a
modem device that may not work in another wireless computing environment, according to Howard officials.
But even though the technology may
impress students, parents and even faculty, many technology experts caution that the
benefits of adding wireless technology may not always outweigh its cost. What’s most
important and practical is for a university to cover the basics.
“For a major research university, the
decision to go wireless is at best a complementary technology to the hard-wired infrastructure,” says Dr. Dewitt Latimer, a nationally
recognized authority on wireless networks and
director of computing and network
services at the University of Tennessee.
Latimer cautions that campus officials should not assume that a wireless network will be able to effectively transmit heavy traffic
information, such as multimedia and video
“I would hate to see a school deploy
wireless to keep up with the Joneses,” he says, adding that, “Wireless is going to be two or three times less in order of performance” compared to systems that depend on fiber
optic and copper cable lines.
But Dewayne Hendricks, chief executive officer of the Silicon Valley-based Dandin Group, says wireless networks can save
cash-strapped institutions money in the short term because they can be less costly than the
installation of fiber optic wire and cable
“You don’t have the expense of digging up streets and campus grounds, and installing wires,” he says.
And more help may be on the way for
minority-serving institutions that want to go wireless. The Dandin Group, a Black-owned company which designs and builds wireless information networks, is a contractor and
consultant to the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Networking-Minority Serving Institution project. Launched this year, the project is spending $6 million over four years to assist historically Black schools, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges in the development of campus computer networks (see Black Issues, March 2).
The Dandin Group became involved with the project because the company had been working with the American Indian tribal
nations and recognized that NSF funding could help the tribal colleges develop advanced
wireless data networks. Dandin wants to set up wireless networks that have the capacity to handle video, data and telephone traffic.
Meanwhile, Howard officials expect to
establish wireless connection access in outdoor locations and popular student areas by the spring. Currently, staff members in the school’s administrative buildings have access to the wireless network.
The next step, say Howard officials, is for technicians to start installing data, telephone and cable television ports in all the rooms
serving the 4,000 students who reside in
residential dormitories.

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