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School Construction 2003

August 21, 2003

Keeping up with the Joneses

  • Colleges turn to wireless networks to compete for students

    wireless user
    Photo courtesy of Sparling
    Students, keen to forsake noisy dorms and staid computer labs for the comfier surroundings of cafes and campus greens, are demanding wireless Internet capability in growing numbers. The model in this promotional photo demonstrates the technology’s appeal.

    “Can you hear me now?”

    That’s been an effective marketing campaign for Verizon Wireless, and I can’t help but draw the parallel to students with wireless laptops at new education facilities in Washington state. “Can you hear my network connection now?” is the question as two and four-year institutions begin to implement wireless networks on their campuses.

    Telecommunications terminology is confusing enough. Add to that an industry that changes so rapidly, even the experts have difficulty keeping up. A question we often hear from campus administrators is “Should we install wireless networks now or just plan for the future?” The two options are not mutually exclusive, and the answer is “yes” on both counts.

    Wireless computing is a hot topic, and in some ways, surprisingly so. Not only is wireless technology new, it is widely used. If current trends reflect the future, the number of wireless implementations will continue to rise.

    Wireless local-area network equipment shipments worldwide experienced a 120 percent increase in 2002, while spending (generated revenue) increased only 29 percent, according to Gartner, Inc. These two trends are interrelated and therefore not a surprise. As the technology matures the price drops, making wireless systems feasible for fiscally cautious owners to purchase.

    However, the rise in demand for wireless systems increases pressure felt by institutions to keep up with their competitors. Each school competes voraciously for a limited but growing number of students. Four-year institutions compete on a national level, while two-year schools compete on the local level. No facility wants the stigma and declining enrollment that accompanies a reputation for being behind on the technology curve.

    Who’s doing what?

    So, are you behind the technology curve? Let’s look at how wireless networks are affecting campuses across the nation.

    IDC and the Educause Center for Applied Research (ECAR) issued a report in June last year that evaluated wireless trends based on their 2001 survey of nearly 400 college and university campuses across the United States.

    The following results are particularly interesting:

    • 60 percent of respondents had already moved forward with wireless networking

    • 94 percent had either implemented wireless, or planned to

    • 80 percent of implemented wireless networks were in 2000 or later

    • 23 percent implemented campus-wide (all were smaller institutions, with fewer than 10,000 full-time-equivalent students)

    These numbers indicate a significant interest and buy-in to invest in wireless technology. What’s more, almost 90 percent of educational facilities that had implemented a wireless system felt that it either met or exceeded their expectations. This kind of positive feedback will ensure continued spending in the near future.

    Locally, University of Washington has included wireless capability in William H. Gates Hall and the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering, both slated for completion this fall.

    “We’ve received a number of requests from different departments during the design phases of these projects, and needed to provide the capability to meet that need,” said Lyle Zimmerman, UW’s manager of communication technologies.

    Zimmerman is witnessing firsthand the wireless explosion on his campus and others.

    “Students today and tomorrow learn very differently than even just a few years back,” he said. “They expect to be able to log on to the network or surf the Web from almost any location. And with today’s technology, they can.”

    Washington’s two-year colleges also prioritize the next wave of learning technology.

    Highline Community College’s executive director of administrative technology, Dick Arbak, likes the capability in the plans for the campus’ new student union building and Higher Education Center. Both buildings are just beginning construction and will include extensive wireless coverage.

    “We see wireless as a very important part of our students’ learning experience,” Arbak said.

    “With design and construction being a three- to four-year process, we need to look at how these technologies evolve. We believe wireless will be used on a daily basis in that time frame, therefore we are planning for it now.”

    Assessing coverage

    How much coverage do you need?

    This is another common question that educational administrators consider. Should we have full coverage throughout every building or just in public gathering spots? Should we cover the entire campus? How about in the dorms?

    Perhaps include wireless access to the Web and e-mails on the buses that the students ride to the campus? (Not a common question, but this is currently happening on one California university campus and surrounding 10-mile radius coverage).

    The question today is how much coverage do you need now. Sometime in the near future, this question will be moot as all facilities and surrounding areas will offer mobile computing. Students and staff will use personal digital assistants or laptops to access class schedules, surf the Web, check e-mail, or chat online.

    American University, an 84-acre school with 10,000 students in Washington, D.C., hopes to achieve this level of connectivity when classes begin this fall.

    Locally, the trend at new facilities is to include wireless capability in public gathering areas such as classrooms and study areas, with infrastructure installed everywhere else for future full coverage.

    Wireless implementation is not without some concerns for information technology planners. According to the June 2002 ECAR/IDC report, network information security and support for end-users were cited as the two top concerns for facilities considering wireless implementation.

    It is also important to note that wireless technology is not currently replacing wired systems. Rather, wireless is being installed in tandem with wired systems to supplement the facility’s capabilities. This point is critical to remember as you begin to think about the price tag.

    Costs decreasing

    Students and department staff are starting to demand wireless from their information technology planners. The cost to implement these demands continues to decrease. Wireless technology is clearly meeting and exceeding expectations on campus.

    Can you hear me now? I can hear the tapping of wireless laptops and PDAs on campus growing stronger every day.

    (Note: This article has been changed since its original publication to provide the complete names of two buildings on the University of Washington campus. A reference to a table that did not appear due to space constraints was erased.)

    Troy Thrun is principal of a design studio that specializes in higher education and commercial projects at Sparling, an electrical engineering and technology consulting firm.

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