On campus, online and mostly unwired

How colleges and universities are managing the ubiquity of wireless devices among their residential populations.

From the October, 2014 Issue of Cabling Installation & Maintenance Magazine

How colleges and universities are managing the ubiquity of wireless devices among their residential populations.

The recently published 2014 State of ResNet Report-a combined effort of higher-education organizations the Association of Information Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA; www.acuta.org), the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO; www.nacubo.org) and the Association of College and University Housing Officers International (ACUHO-I; www.acuho-i.org)-provides insight into how higher-education facilities are managing the pervasiveness of wireless devices on their campuses.

The 2014 report's introduction explains it is "the third installment of a five-year tracking study that measures the pulse in residential networks (ResNet) practices and policies in higher education." Compared to last year's study, the 2014 version includes information from more than three-times as many chief business officers. Overall the research includes data from more than 400 higher-education institutions. For the purposes of the study, "resnet" comprises Internet, cable television, and phone service available to residents living in on-campus residence halls.

Crunching numbers

The 22-page report dissects findings on the following areas: bandwidth management, wireless coverage, resnet management and support, planning and measurement, costs and funding, and outsourcing. In its executive summary, it discusses the methods schools are exploring to accommodate the need for more bandwidth, and concludes that today, more schools are providing robust wireless and mobile connectivity than were doing so a year ago.

Concerning bandwidth-management, the report says, "Increasing bandwidth, rather than shaping and limiting bandwidth, is a more-popular approach to bandwidth management that schools are using to cope with demand." The percentage of schools dedicating at least 1-Gbit/sec connection speeds for resnet services more than doubled between 2013 and 2014, from 22.3 percent last year to 44.8 percent this year.

Three out of four institutions allow an unlimited number of devices to be connected to the residential networks, the report also says, and tablets are expected to be the device that consumes the most bandwidth in the coming years-although fewer of this year's survey respondents said they foresee tablets as the largest bandwidth-consuming devices. Specifically, the 2013 report indicated 83.5 percent expected large amounts of bandwidth consumption from tablets, and that number dropped to 73.4 percent in 2014. With the exception of smartphones, all other computing devices also dropped from 2013 to 2014. The report ponders: "A possible explanation for these trends could be ever-larger screens on phones, and the popularity of phone-tablet hybrids (phablets) replacing computers as the computing device of choice."

Nonetheless, the 73.4-percent number reflects the expectation by many higher-education facilities that tablets, as well as other computing devices, will consume significant amounts of bandwidth for years to come. How do these schools deal with the ultimate in bring-your-own-device (BYOD) administration? For some, it's a little bit (perhaps a very little bit) of BYON-bring-your-own-network. Again, from the report: "In order to provide students with flexibility and easy access to the resnet, nearly one-quarter of institutions allow campus residents to install personal network support, like switches or mini-hubs, but fewer than 20 percent of schools allow residents to install wired routers or allow wireless routers. Fifteen percent of schools permit the installation of servers. In contrast, 60.1 percent of universities prohibit the installation of network devices in campus residences."

Wireless strategies

Schools' overall hesitancy to allow the installation of wireless routers goes hand-in-hand with the fact that many schools offer wireless coverage across most or all of their campuses. The survey defined "robust wireless coverage" as providing users with four bars or more of connectivity through 81 to 100 percent of residential buildings. As of this year's report, 61.2 percent of campuses provide such robust coverage-up from 45.1 percent in 2013. An additional 26.9 percent of campuses provide four-bars-of-coverage across 61 to 80 percent of residential spaces.

The report points out that other portions of a campus do not always enjoy such robust coverage. Despite that fact, the number of schools considering ways to augment their residential cellular reception on campus has declined sharply, from 76 percent in 2013 to 56.4 percent this year. "Thirty-nine percent of institutions plan to deploy in-building distributed antenna systems, 23.1 percent outdoor DAS, and 21.4 percent outdoor cellular sites/towers," it says. "Other considerations are small cell technology, or femtocells (13.6 percent) and in-building cellular connections (12.8 percent). Forty-four percent of institutions have no plans for cellular augmentation because their cellular reception on the campus is satisfactory, augmentation is too expensive, or there is a perception that the carrier is responsible for providing satisfactory cellular coverage."

How-to/what-with

In a recent web-delivered seminar hosted by Cabling Installation & Maintenance, Oberon Inc.'s (www.oberonwireless.com) co-founder and engineering director, Scott Thompson, addressed topics related to on-campus wireless. The seminar was titled "Cabling and Infrastructure for Educational Facilities," and Thompson presented about wireless on campus, dividing his presentation into residential environments and high-density areas like classrooms, auditoriums and stadiums. His presentation included practical guidance and observations about the physical placement and installation of wireless systems within these facilities.

When addressing residential wireless networks, Thompson pointed out that although residence buildings may be robustly connected, in most cases a single wireless access point (WAP) is shared between or among multiple rooms/suites. Still, that makes these residences high-density WAP environments. "One recommendation is to mount WAPs in a hallway," he noted. "They could be mounted in alternate positions down a hallway, perhaps covering one to four rooms per WAP. If they are mounted in private rooms, there tends to be more of a maintenance issue," he continued. "Avoid putting them in closets, because those closets get filled and the WAPs could get damaged, disconnected, or obstructed.

"Often WAPs are installed right on the wall or on a hard ceiling," he said. "Block walls are typical, and we find residence halls can be challenging because of their construction." Some residence buildings are aged and include significant amounts of brick, hollow-core plank ceilings, block walls and other generally unforgiving materials. "That's a challenging environment for the RF signal, and for the cabling," he said. "It's a good idea to protect the WAP and the cabling from physical abuse."

Especially at older universities, he explained, the residence halls often do not offer the convenience of mounting WAPs above a ceiling. Combine that with the fact that several manufacturers recommend against above-ceiling mounts because of potential loss as the signal propagates through a ceiling tile, and in many cases access points within residence buildings will be exposed to the building's human population, "which may lead to problems," Thompson said. "If not outright vandalism," he said, access points may be subject to an "errant football" or other consequences of a socially rambunctious group.

Guiding specifications

Two standard specifications produced by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA; www.tiaonline.org) separately address aspects of wireless communication systems on higher-education campuses. TSB-162-A Telecommunications Cabling Guidelines for Wireless Access Points, published in late 2013, prescribes a grid design for wireless LANs, with a cabled equipment outlet at the center of each cell within the grid. The WAP is placed within the cell, and connected to the outlet with a cord no longer than 13 meters.

While TSB-162-A concerns itself with cabling for wireless deployments in a number of application environments-educational facilities and many others-the TIA's 4966 standard specifically addresses communications infrastructure in educational buildings and spaces. The standard covers cabling, pathways, wireless infrastructure and more information directly related to educational environments. It makes recommendations for access-point density in large, open spaces (such as stadiums, lecture halls and performance centers) and in areas that are largely partitioned (such as buildings with separate classrooms and residence halls). For large, open spaces, access-point density recommendations are based on the spaces' anticipated occupancy. For more-compartmentalized spaces, recommendations are based on square footage. Generally a residence hall is considered unfriendly to RF signals, for the reasons already discussed. In such spaces, the standard recommends one wireless access point for every 150 square meters of space.

The report generated by ACUTA, NACUBO and ACUHO-I includes data that suggests wireless-only residence areas are becoming more common than they used to be on college and university campuses-although the report's wording downplays the possibility. It says, "Despite the reported increase in strong wireless coverage, only 16.2 percent of institutions will remove existing wired Ethernet access ports in residential buildings, which is still three times more than in 2012. Another 17.5 percent are unsure if they will remove Ethernet access ports. These figures are comparable to 2013." It further explains, "A majority of institutions include wired Ethernet access ports in new residential construction by offering one port per student (61.9 percent), one port per resident (13.2 percent) and/or provide ports upon request (7.3 percent). Six percent of institutions did not include Ethernet ports in residential construction completed over the past three years."

Indications are that wired and wireless networks will continue to require planning and administration on college and university campuses for the long term, in residential, academic, administrative and social spaces.

Patrick McLaughlin is our chief editor.

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