American U. to roll out campus wireless system

American University in Washington, D.C., will roll out a campus-wide wireless system designed to give students, faculty and employees wireless access to university data.

The system, which combines the use of cellular communications and 802.11b wireless networking, is designed to improve voice and data communications in the university and reduce the use of traditional phones on campus, American University said Wednesday. The wiring of the 50 or so university buildings is expected to be completed by December, although most buildings will be ready in time for the September 2002 semester, Carl Whitman, executive director of the university's E-Operations group, said in an interview.

Using wireless devices such as cell phones, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and notebook computers, students, teachers and university staffers will be able to, among other things, connect to the Internet, send and receive e-mail messages, and access Web-based university information, such as class schedules.

"The main goal is to provide better service to our students, faculty and staff because of the greater accessibility that people can get from having wireless access to our administrative and academic systems," Whitman said.

The system will also allow university officials to push out to the users university-related information, such as alerts about class cancellations and information about campus events. The system has been designed to provide wireless connectivity to users who are indoors as well as outdoors, the university said.

IT services provider KPMG Consulting Inc., based in McLean, Virginia, is in charge of implementing the system, the university said. The university carried out a two-month trial of the system in its business school and one residence hall which went well and yielded valuable user feedback on ways to tweak the system, Whitman said.

In the current academic year, American University has 5,501 undergraduate students, 3,161 graduate students and 1,532 students in its law school, as well as a full-time faculty of 566 teachers, according to the university's Web site. The law school hasn't decided yet whether it will have the system installed on its premises, which are off the main university campus, Whitman said.

A big motivation for building the system was the increasing expectations from students regarding the university's support for computing technologies. "The expectation of our incoming freshman class is growing every year," Whitman said.

"As part of their university experience, they expect support for the latest and greatest technology, so we're trying to stay ahead of that curve and meet that expectation," Whitman added.

Inside the buildings the system will not only give users wireless network connectivity but also improved cellular coverage, which can be spotty indoors at present, Whitman said.

"It's a single antenna system used to handle the radio broadcasts for both the cell phones as well as the LAN access," he said.

Improving cellular reception inside buildings will help towards the goal of reducing the use of traditional landline phones and the support that infrastructure requires, which will save the university money, he added.

The system will also increase Internet use in classrooms and other buildings, such as libraries, since it will give Internet access to all students equipped with a wireless device, he said. The system will also make the university's network available wirelessly throughout campus and not limited to users whose devices are physically connected to an access point, he added.

"It's all about removing barriers to access and letting people's creativity flow from there," Whitman said.

The university will continue developing applications over the next several years to make more and more of the data in the university's network available to users with wireless devices. The ultimate goal is to offer wirelessly all the data and services the university now offers over the Web, he said.

The university is evaluating a variety of software vendors to work with to develop these applications that will allow it to deliver to a variety of wireless devices all the data it wants to make available to users, he said.

In terms of service providers, the university has been working most closely so far with Cingular Wireless LLC but expects to announce support from a second wireless carrier in a few weeks, Whitman said. The system is carrier-neutral, and can accommodate multiple carriers, he added. Wireless carriers need to provide a dedicated cell site for the university to meet the system's capacity demands, he said.

The two main vendors involved in the project are Foxcom Wireless, which is providing the distributed-antenna system, and Cisco Systems Inc., which is providing the wireless network equipment, Whitman said.

The indoors antennas are small and unobtrusive and look like smoke detectors, said Yehuda Holtzman, marketing vice president at Foxcom Wireless, based in Vienna, Virginia. The antennas are of the wideband type, which means they can support wireless services in different radio frequencies, such as 800MHz, 1900MHz and 2.4GHz, he added.

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