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Going wireless at Framingham State College

Nov 25, 20027 mins
Network Security

802.11b rollout gets high marks, but providing consistent coverage entails plenty of trial and error.

Jim Gallagher, telecommunications manager for Framingham State College in Massachusetts, is learning his lessons in wireless LAN deployment.

In 1997, the college began discussing ways to address the growing demand for computer lab seats and the use of technology in the classroom. The IT department enrolled in a wireless laptop pilot in the fall semester of 1998, after it was decided that a wireless LAN was preferable to spending $200,000 to convert an existing classroom into a 25-seat computer lab.

Four years later, the initial pilot of 80 laptops used in five courses has graduated into a requirement that all incoming 2002 students use a wireless laptop.

To meet that commitment, the college upgraded its infrastructure, boosting Internet bandwidth from two T-1s to a fractional DS-3, and replacing older 10/100M bit/sec closet switches with Enterasys Networks E-1 Matrix switches that have Gigabit Ethernet ports.

The college also migrated from about 30 of its Proxim prestandard units to more than 100 new 802.11b standard access points from Enterasys. Most of the RoamAbout R2 wireless access points are located on the ceiling exterior, and others, hidden behind ceiling panels, are equipped with Enterasys Range Extender antennas.

All access points feed in to an Enterasys power unit adapter that connects to the new E-1 closet switches. Traffic is then Gigabit up-linked to an Enterasys ER-16 Xpedition core switch. The Xpedition switch interfaces with a Cisco 2600 router for Internet access and with the fractional DS-3 interface that connects to the campus network’s Fore ATM switch.

There are no outdoor access points on campus. Yet in nice weather the quad area swarms with students sitting with wireless laptops and walking with lids up, fingering commands on screens barely visible in the brightness of the day as connectivity bleeds out from several buildings that wall in the open space. Tucked among rolling hills away from highway traffic, 3,100 students hike tarred pathways that are cloistered by a mix of century-old, red brick buildings and modern cement constructions.

Because the access points follow the 802.11b standard, students can use any vendor’s client card. More than 800 college-owned laptops used by the faculty and students are equipped with cards from Lucent. The college also is offering a deal on Gateway and IBM laptops, which the IT department will support.

Today, Framingham State’s wireless-LAN connectivity is available in all but one building, which is being renovated. The network supports 1,550 laptops and 67 faculty members teaching 113 laptop-facilitated courses. By 2005, all students on campus will be required to have a wireless laptop.

Gallagher says the tricky part of a wireless deployment is getting the coverage right. “There’s no getting 100% quality coverage because lots of things can interfere with the wireless signal,” he says, “It all depends on where you are in relation to the signal. If the laptop is turned in a different direction it may get a better signal, like using your cell phone.”

Gallagher has found that the quality of the wireless signal varies per device, per location, and that certain interference affects reception. The number of access points needed depends on the amount of open space and coverage required, and on a building’s construction. For example, wood and glass let the signal pass through, but the signal gets diminished if passed through concrete with embedded steel rods.

Also, different types of metal can deflect the wireless signal, such as an elevator shaft or a metal walk-in safe. Even different laptop antennae – the location and design of them – affect reception. Antennae wrapped around the screen within a metal casing can be less effective.

IT initially used an Enterasys site survey as a thumbnail sketch, after which the limitations and dead spots were found. In some locations optimum reception requires that IT relocate the access point an additional 25 feet out, Gallagher says. “It’s an ongoing process,” he adds.

To maximize capacity, IT added more than 50 Enterasys Mezzanine adapter units to the access points located in high-density classroom and lecture hall areas. While Mezzanine adapters add capacity, IT is careful to not locate access points in close proximity, so signals don’t interfere with each other.

Power connections are another big issue, Gallagher says. With the Proxim access points, an electrician was often required to install power outlets for the devices. The Enterasys access points have a spare wire that runs to the power source.

The college has invested $50,000 on wireless gear and $80,000 to upgrade switches, and currently spends $10,000 monthly for bandwidth. Gallagher is in the process of acquiring an authentication server. Authentication isn’t required to access the wireless network but laptops need to be configured to connect. Wireless runs as a separate virtual LAN (VLAN) to the campus network with students and faculty limited to their respective domains. IT uses the Enterasys NetSite application for VLAN and port management. Users authenticate to access student resources on the campus network via Windows 2000. Otherwise they get local access to the Internet via their wireless connection.

Stretching student learning beyond the classroom is beneficial for the entire campus body. Access to online resources, educational CDs, statistical applications and presentation technologies in class enhance productivity, says Janet Schwartz, associate professor of Food and Nutrition at the college.

Framingham State is becoming an e-learning community, particularly with the widespread use of the Blackboard Learning system, a Web-based server software platform that offers discussion boards and chat functions, course management, and integration with the school’s information systems and authentication protocols. Usage has increased so much that the service is now hosted on a separate application server for the school via Blackboard’s ASP service model.

The wireless technology is key in changing how class instruction is done, and information is shared and communicated.

Academic Center staff and tech-savvy faculty members host various sessions to advance the skills of users, and students share application and usage tips on instant messaging lingo and CD-burning. Schwartz finds that students are more organized, and value the diversity that the presentation applications and the Internet offer, including online guest speakers. Interning students apply enhanced presentation skills to prepare educational materials for use at food distribution centers. A leasing program “has leveled the playing field,” says Schwartz, because it lets students who couldn’t afford to buy laptops lease them for the semester. “I had one student say that she cursed me when I gave her the leased laptop, but now she can’t believe she has to give it up.”

Graduate student Melanie Mulcahy participated in Framingham State’s first pilot program as an undergraduate, and believes the technology is beneficial to her career because it helped her design a Web site for use in her role as a dietician.

Freshman Sean Chrobak likes the wireless laptop for working anywhere, including home on weekends. “The wireless connection is fast, and nice to have when I want to relax comfortably instead of at a desk.”

We’re moving toward a paperless and ubiquitous education exchange, says Alan Feldman, professor of English. But instead of a lost syllabus, the new excuse is not having an Internet connection while at home over the weekend, he says, adding that the interaction with students that happens seven days a week is valuable. “I sent half of my corrected papers at 10:30 last night. Students send me a question, and I can redirect them to the online syllabus. Students like the immediacy of work corrected, although they do find it strange to have a paper due at noon on Sunday.”

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