WiFi on Campus: Easy Deployment, Slow Adoption

If ever a wireless local area network (WLAN) deployment embodied the potential benefits of wireless technology, it is the one at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. However, that same deployment also shows how difficult it can be to win user acceptance of WLANs.

As with most universities, many Cal Poly students rely on computer labs for checking e-mail and performing other on-line tasks. Ultimately, the WLAN will give students more flexibility and save money.

“Often, the labs are full and students have to wait in line to get a workstation,” said Gabriel Kuri, operating systems and network analyst for the university. “So (the WLAN) benefits students with laptops plus we don’t have to build more labs.” In addition, he added, the WLAN will make it easier for instructors to integrate the Internet into the classroom, something an increasing number of academicians are asking for.

However, despite the potential benefits of the WLAN, the university has discovered that gaining user acceptance can take time.

Slow Adoption

The initial drive toward the wireless LAN came from outside the information technology shop, Kuri noted.

“We have a vice president who asked us to take a look at it — this was at the end of 2000 or the beginning of 2001,” Kuri recalled. “He realized there are areas of the campus we’d like to cover but where it would be cost prohibitive or difficult to run wires.”

Kuri’s team obtained evaluation equipment from several companies and settled on Cisco, which was the only vendor that provided the type of security that the university wanted.

“At the time, none of the others provided much security beyond MAC address evaluation and static WEP,” Kuri said. “We have a user base of 3000 faculty and between 30,000 and 40,000 students. We figured there’s no way we could do MAC address authentication for that many people.”

Cisco, on the other hand, offered its LEAP authentication, a proprietary standard based on Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP). Kuri said he and his colleagues were not happy about deploying proprietary technology, but it was their only practical security option when the WLAN deployment began.

However, that very authentication slowed adoption of the WLAN, Kuri acknowledged. At the time, Apple hadn’t licensed LEAP from Cisco (it has done so since) and many students and faculty had Apple PowerBooks, Kuri said. “And Windows laptops rarely shipped with wireless cards in those days,” he added.

As a result, Apple users couldn’t connect to the WLAN and Windows laptop users had to purchase Cisco 802.11b cards, which were comparatively expensive. The result was slow adoption of the WLAN.

“We still have a total of less than 100 people using the WLAN,” Kuri said.

Increasing Usage

However, prospects are looking up. Besides Apple licensing LEAP, the university recently bought a site license from Meetinghouse Data Communications for its AEGIS client software, which enables users of most popular 802.11b adapters to use LEAP.

“Now, students can go to Fry’s and purchase a (less expensive) Linksys or D-Link card,” Kuri said. The university’s help desk will then install the AEGIS client software at no cost to the user. The lower cost should encourage WLAN usage, as should the fact that an increasing number of Windows laptops now come with 802.11 capabilities built-in.

As a result, Kuri said, the university remains committed to LEAP and is continuing to build out the WLAN. Currently, there are access points in public areas such as the university’s quad, the main library, a park-like area where students hang out, a food court and the main administration building. In addition, the business school previously set up its own WLAN, which is being transitioned to the same network and equipment as the rest of the university.

The business school’s WLAN deployment points to another reason why usage should spread throughout the university, Kuri said. The business school has laptops on carts. When an instructor wants his or her students to access the Internet during class, the cart is brought to the classroom and the laptops are distributed.

“Now, we’re getting requests from other departments for the wireless LAN, and we’re looking to add (the WLAN) to more labs and classrooms,” Kuri said. “I’m guessing by the end of 2003 we’ll have doubled the number of our access points.”

Easy Deployment

So far, Kuri said there have been few deployment problems. One reason for that was the site surveys Kuri’s shop performed before they installed access points. For instance, anticipating interference in the library with its dense shelves of books, they made sure to install the antennas between a minimum of six inches above the stacks.

“The only real problem we’ve run into had to do with our wanting to minimize the number of access points we deployed in a specific area,” he said. “With 802.11b, you have a limited number of channels. We had to cover a large area with a minimum number of access points, so we staggered the channel separation so there wasn’t interference.”

Kuri’s group also decided that they wanted tight control over the strength and coverage of the wireless signal so that it didn’t spread to areas where it either wasn’t needed.

“We played with the power settings,” Kuri recalled. “We could crank it up to 100 milliwatts, but if we didn’t need that much, we’d crank it back down as low as possible and still provide the coverage we needed.” They also purchased antennas that enabled them to concentrate the signal precisely where they wanted it to be.

“A lot of antennas are omnidirectional and the signal spreads out all over the place,” Kuri said. “We needed to concentrate the signal in a smaller area.”

With the WLAN gaining momentum, Kuri remains optimistic about its value to the university.

“We’re in the business of educating students. If we can justify a method of doing that and save money by, say, not having to set up an entire lab of workstations, that’s great.”