Unplugged but still connected
Campus’ wireless computer network creates laptops of luxury
Recent graduate Brian Lee needed frequent Internet access last year as he buckled down to complete his final semester of management information systems coursework.
“I worked full time and was finishing my degree, so there wasn’t much time to get all the information I needed outside of my time on campus,” said the busy 22-year-old. “Being able to connect to the Internet in other places besides the labs helped me.”
These “other places” meant virtually anywhere on campus, thanks to the University’s wireless fidelity network.
Laptop-toting students accessing the Internet outdoors for pleasure and study has become a common sight since the Office of Information Technology expanded the wi-fi network throughout the campus during spring and summer 2004.
OIT spent approximately $300,000 on the project, according to David Caldwell, network services director. A little more than half the cost was funded by a Student Congress initiative.
Establishing the network triggered issues other than funding, such as finding the best technology to protect security.
In the early days of wi-fi, three types of technology vied for supremacy, and it wasn’t clear which would prevail. Caldwell likened the situation to when videocassette recorders came out. Although many invested in Betamax, the VHS format prevailed, leaving Betamax users in the cold.
OIT didn’t want to make the same mistake by investing in a technology too soon. Caldwell likes Vernier Networks’ encryption method, which ensures that all users are affiliated with UTA.
“It’s better to take precautions and protect your information,” he said.
Another issue was determining where to place the access points. The impact that construction materials and organic substances have on wireless signals required careful planning. Calculating the number of people possible in campus locations and compensating for all the greenery—two critical considerations—presented another challenge.
“People have an impact on wireless signals,” Caldwell said. “Any water-bearing vessel affects the signal, and trees are a killer with all the leaves full of water.”
Most of the front sections in classrooms were already wired for Internet connection. Because wi-fi isn’t as reliable as wired, replacing the wired with wireless would have been a step back. So OIT provided wireless access points reaching into the rear of classrooms, where the wired connections didn’t go.
Although computer users can access the wireless network throughout each campus building, OIT placed more access points in high-traffic public areas like the E.H. Hereford University Center. The number of students seen using the wireless network at any given time confirms its popularity.
“Most universities have an effective wireless network,” Caldwell said. “Students expect it now.”
And just like Brian Lee, they’re finding it at UTA.
— Kim Pewitt-Jones