Students returning to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire will be greeted with enthusiastic professors, the fiery change of New England's autumn foliage, and 450 access points of wireless connectivity. Not only will the central green and the Computer Science department have wireless ports, but also the football stadium, the boathouse, and the swimming dock.
Lawrence Levine, Director of Computing, says their Cisco 802.11b Local Area Network ports offer freedom to the students. "The students can escape the dorms and classrooms and literally go anywhere on campus and study," he says.
In the U.S. Dartmouth College has a strong reputation for being at the cutting edge of the latest technology. The language BASIC was created at Dartmouth, and in 1991 the faculty of Dartmouth voted to become the first campus to require the incoming freshmen to own a PC. However, Dartmouth is not the leading institution in terms of wireless technology. It is only one a growing number of campuses using 802.11b LAN technology to allow their students to take down classroom notes, choose courses, or contact professors on the fly.
From the smallest to the largest
From Stanford Law School to Johns Hopkins Medical School to the Wharton School of Business, Universities are adding LAN, specifically 802.11b networks, to their campuses.
At the Wharton School of Business, wireless technology is seen as an extension of their student intranet network SPIKE. Kendall Whitehouse, spokesperson for Wharton says that their initiative was driven by the students' demands for wireless connectivity. "We didn't make our students change their habits," he says. "The students were managing their lives by running around with Palms. They asked for mobile connections."
At undergraduate institutions the numbers are even greater. These universities range from large state universities like UCLA, to small catholic colleges like Mount Saint Mary in New York State, to science focused institutions like the University of Minnesota's School of Engineering and Science at Duluth, to Ivy league institutions like Dartmouth.
So fast you can download MP3 files in seconds!
802.11b devices are designed to communicate with a nearby access point - usually less than 300 feet away - at speeds as high as 11 megabits per second. In terms of how his compares to the 56k modem on your desktop computer, 11 megabits will allow the student to view a streaming video of a class at 30 screens a second, whereas the 56k modem will take so much time downloading an entire class that the course may be over before you can view the footage.
802.11a represents the next generation of wireless LAN technology, offering networking speeds up to 54 Mbps and more. Proxim, a 15 year old Sunnyvale California based company, will offer 802.11a products in Q4 of 2001. Lynn Chrousp, Director of Commercial Networks Business Units at Proxim, predicts that their 802.11a products will reach speeds of 108 megabits "at the end of the year." Proxim has built LANs for the University of Dayton, Iowa State, and Mount Saint Mary.
Lynn Chrousp says their PC cards are primarily aimed at "Internet access, access to a university intranet, and to download homework assignments and reading materials." Of course, at speeds of 108 megabits a second, the students may use these networks for other purposes. Chrousp adds, "Universities will try to limit the downloading of MP3 files." In reality, the chance of universities have in limiting MP3 downloads over their fast 802.11b system is as likely as asking the student body from refraining from going to the campus bar over the weekend.
Other companies that make 802.11b adapters and base stations include Intel, 3Com, HereUAre, MobileStar, Nortel, D-Link, WayPort, AirWave, IBM and Cisco.
Not every reason for deploying 802.11b LANs across university campuses has to do with offering the latest technology to the student body. Price is also a factor.
Back in 1998 Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health in Baltimore decided to wire their classrooms for an Ethernet network. At a cost of $3000 to install a wireless LAN in a classroom, compared to $18,000 to wire a classroom, the choice was obvious - especially when Johns Hopkins wanted to wire 40+ classrooms.
The draw back in choosing wireless LAN options is that the cost is partially shifted to the students. Johns Hopkins chose Nortel's BayStack 600 series to build 75 ports that could be accessed from 200 feet away. The Nortel BayStack 600 port currently costs $1799 for an access port, and $569 for a PC card: fiscally responsible for the University, but an added cost to the student.
Proxim offers their Skyline brand of LAN cards and ports for small businesses and homes for less. The bases stations run as low as $200, the PC cards cost $99, and the Pocket PC cards run at $149, but the area and the amount of users in less extensive than the enterprise models.
Wireless campuses are big business
802.11b LANs are becoming big business. A sign of their rising demand has been Intel's acquisition of Xircom, a leading manufacturer of ports and cards, for $748 million on March 13th.
Intel is now the premier provider of LAN cards for PDAs. On May 8th 2001 they introduced the Xircom Springport Wireless Ethernet module. This was the first LAN device for the Handspring Visor, costing $299. On June 26 Intel produced a LAN module for the Palm m500 series, also for $299. With a card for Compaq's iPAQ introduced in the beginning of the year, Intel now has all types of PDAs covered.
Tom Von Voy, spokesperson for Xircom, says that the universities are demanding a mobile environment. "The education environment, especially higher education, must support a very mobile user base, so LAN is a natural technology progression," he says, "Students and faculty can do e-mail, run custom education applications like class registration, or interactive classroom applications, and messaging anywhere around campus." Ah, promised land of wireless technology.
The Trojan Horse of 802.11b
The 802.11b wireless LANs use in American campuses is exciting for two reasons. The first is obviously the early adoption of wireless environments. The second is that the students who leave these universities will expect similar technology in the real world. That is the scenario that Intel is counting on with their purchase of Xircom.
Currently Cahners-In-Stat group estimates that there are 2.3 million wireless LAN users in the U.S. By 2003 that number is predicted to reach 23 million. Brad Driver, Director of Investor Relations at Handspring, looks at the progression from university campuses to business offices as a natural growth for wireless LANs. "Certainly getting wireless devices into the hands of the students is a good opportunity for us," he says. "Especially as they move from education to enterprise solutions."
Technology and communications can easily become an addiction for students. In answer to a question about the success of Dartmouth's technology initiatives, Lawrence Levine sites anecdotal evidence of the students' frustration when the technology broke down. "In the early days of our intranet," he says, "when the network went down the computer department was attacked by irate and desperate messages from students as well as faculty."
This demand for technology should push 802.11b LANs further into the mainstream. MobileStar already offers service in American Airlines' Admirals Clubs and gate areas in several airports and a number of hotels around the U.S. The company has also added wireless ports in several Starbucks coffee shops in Northern California, New York, Texas and Washington State.
Palo Alto-based Airwave offers free service in restaurants and bookstores throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Austin-based WayPort has installed 802.11b access points at airports in Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Seattle and San Jose and hotels like the New Otani in Los Angeles and the Four Seasons in New York.
Although the financial reason for universities adopting wireless LANs is clear, making a profit out of public LANs will be a necessary step for their widespread adoption. HereUAre, a company that helps build infrastructure behind companies like MobileStar's ports, is looking to charge micropayments for the use of public 802.11b networks.
Clark Doeng, CEO of HereUAre, says, "Initially you are seeing the networks in airports and hotels for business travelers. That's where they are and that's where they are needed." Like universities, the cost of hotels to add LANs must be considerably less than wiring their buildings. Mr. Doeng adds, "We are very quickly seeing this market move into cafes, and that is a whole new segment. In the next year we are looking at large numbers of networks."
Inside the classroom
Whereas 802.11b networks will become more prevalent in public areas during the next year, wireless interaction is a way of life for a numbers of schools, starting now. Wireless devices and 802.11b networks can be used as laboratory tools, ways to handout assignments and readings, and chances for the professor to interact with the students during a lecture, whether it is by receiving questions or by immediately assessing the students' understanding through questions.
Lynn Chrousp of Proxim says, "The demand is expanding right now. Quarter over quarter, there is a rapid interest."
C.J. Kennedy is currently the senior staff writer for Unstrung.com, and has covered the mobile industry for M-Business Magazine, The Wireless Developer Network, Wireless Business & Technology, Wireless Related, and The Industry Standard.