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A Learning Curve in Wireless Networks

July 31, 2010
Key drivers in creating optimal, campus-wide communications with wireless networks.

Recruiting and retaining students and faculty at any college or university is no simple task. Not unlike their business counterparts, higher-ed professionals – administration, as well as those in charge of campus facilities – continually seek competitive ways in which to garner the attention of their user base.

Eight years ago, forward-thinking Loras College, a private, liberal arts college in Dubuque, IA, decided to distinguish itself by becoming a laptop campus. Today, each full-time student receives a laptop computer for academic and personal use, complete with software, an extensive wireless communications network, and full technical support.

While the actual hardware provides these technology-savvy users with the tools to excel in their academic areas of interest, the wireless network is the real brains (and brawn) behind the program’s continuing success. "The laptop initiative pushed us to start building a wireless infrastructure; but we’re using the network to also accommodate the ever-changing variety of devices our students and faculty use: smartphones, tablet PCs, etc.," says Jim Anderson, network systems administrator at Loras College. "Whether we maintain our laptop program for another two or 20 years, we’re pretty sure wireless will be the preferred medium for our users going forward."

BAS: In-Building Wireless Networks Get a Boost

The considerable demand for remote monitoring, energy management, Web-based systems, interoperability, and open systems have placed the North American in-building wireless networks market on a steep growth gradient. This demand, coupled with such advantages as low cost, time savings, energy efficiency, and easy deployment, have established the relevance of in-building wireless networks for building management, according to research findings from Frost & Sullivan (www.frost.com), a world leader in growth consulting, market research, and competitive intelligence.

Wireless systems can integrate data from multiple access points in a non-disruptive way, thereby centralizing the monitoring and management of heating, cooling, lighting, etc. throughout a building, based upon time-of-day usage, peak hours, and other factors. Generally, HVAC and lighting control systems are among the best candidates for wireless, as these systems tend to have stable wired protocols, such as BACnet or LonWorks, which provide a standardized IT foundation for data sharing.

Anderson admits that one of his department’s biggest hurdles is keeping the wireless infrastructure up-to-date. "The equipment is always changing, as well as the wireless protocols. And some of the campus architecture can be an obstacle. That requires budget dollars and planning," he explains.

To ensure it offers the best of all wireless worlds to its students and faculty, Loras works with Hiawatha, IA-based Communications Engineering Company (CEC), a leading systems integrator that offers solution design, integration, and technical services to its commercial and institutional customers. Troy McDermott, CEC network engineer at the integrator’s Dubuque, IA, office, offers the following advice to others seeking campus-wide wireless solutions:

n Know your wireless options. "Traditional wireless networks are microwave point-to-point links using FCC-licensed frequencies. These are expensive, but highly reliable; they take a bit longer to implement and are a little less flexible because of the licensing, meaning you have to reapply for a license if you move equipment to a different location across campus.

The unlicensed frequencies, the so-called ISM bands where you stay below a certain power output and antenna strength, have become popular because they are low cost and very flexible. The reliability isn’t as good as microwave since they are unlicensed; there’s nothing stopping your neighbor from stepping on the same frequency and knocking out your connection.

Free-space optics, which do not need a license, consist of an infrared laser (visible light vs. a radio wave) and offer a lot more speed. Disadvantages include greater cost, more difficult in-place positioning (aiming), and much shorter-distance capabilities than standard radio links.

Another recent development is mesh technology, where several wireless radios talk to each other – actually determining their own pathways throughout the network (routing around a failed radio allows the network to ‘heal’ itself to some degree). Although unlicensed, one disadvantage is that the multiple hops through the network tend to decrease the available throughput of the network, depending upon the radios used."

  • Invest in planning/implementation. "It’s pretty easy to get a mediocre connection working, but difficult to get a very good connection working. With a properly done survey and properly installed equipment, it’s not uncommon to get 10 miles out of a point-to-point connection.

Invest in quality equipment, because it is not always equal. Work with a company that has longevity and success in the industry. There is no industry certification, so check references as well. First and most importantly, though, have them conduct a thorough site survey to determine the actual radio-frequency characteristics (end points; number of radios; frequency; interference issues, such as buildings or foliage) of the campus."

Linda K. Monroe is a contributing editor in Cedar Rapids, IA.

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