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CTIA: School officials see value in on-campus wireless

Wireless LANs can be expensive and complex, but educators from several universities at this week's CTIA Wireless 2003 conference say that wireless networks can provide a competitive advantage over other schools and create new ways to boost revenue.

NEW ORLEANS -- Universities are finding that on-campus wireless networks not only provide a competitive advantage over other schools, but they also help schools regain lost revenue, even if they're not sure how students will take advantage of the technology.

A strong focus on the technology -- specifically, wireless access for students -- has helped set the State University of New York's Morrisville campus apart, said Raymond Cross, president of the university. Cross was a participant in a panel discussion on wireless issues in higher education at this week's CTIA Wireless 2003 conference.

The rural school focuses on agriculture, but both technology and mobility have become important in the agriculture industry, Cross said. The school went wireless back in 1998, before many universities had begun considering it. Since it deployed its wireless system so early, the school went with a 2 Mbps frequency-hopping system that has not enjoyed the same popularity as 802.11b. However, the system maintains better data rates over distances, Cross said.

The 3,400-student school was able to deploy its system in part because of its status as a technology incubator for the much larger SUNY system. The Morrisville campus often works with major technology companies, such as IBM Corp. If the technologies it tries prove beneficial, then the partner vendor has access to the lucrative 60-campus, 400,000-student SUNY system.

That idea of partnering with vendors was appealing to Eileen Wolf McHenry, director of communications for Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, Tenn., and an attendee at the conference. She said that her small school couldn't afford its own wireless network, but that she thought it might be able to do so with the help of technology partners.

American University in Washington, D.C., has found that having a wireless network not only helps it stay competitive with other universities, but it can also make up for lagging revenue. Because at least half of all students now have cell phones, the university's income from on-campus phone systems has eroded dramatically, said panelist Carl Whitman, director of e-operations at the university.

In an effort to recover some of that income, the university deployed cellular coverage with its wireless LAN. The university works with a product from Vienna, Va.-based Foxcom Wireless that provides indoor cell coverage while routing wireless LAN traffic. The university is now working with wireless carriers to offer cellular service to its students.

Unfortunately, wireless LAN deployments are not cheap. American University's system cost $2 million, and both Whitman and Cross said that they faced significant resistance from faculty members.

They said that professors were unhappy about students using the wireless networks during class time. The same problem has come up at the University of Georgia in Athens, said Scott Shamp, director of the school's new media group. He said that, once you connect students to the Internet in the classroom, all they want to do is check e-mail and download music.

In the future, Shamp said, he hopes to utilize wireless connectivity more effectively to allow for broader participation in classroom discussion, or to enable him to judge the effectiveness of his lectures in real-time. To help find better uses for wireless connectivity, his program has put up a wireless LAN that covers the entire city of Athens, Ga. He encourages his students to start developing applications for wireless use.

After all, he said, "We get really excited to put these networks up, but we're just really not quite sure how to use them yet."


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