WMU News

WMU cuts tether, completes wireless environment

Jan. 28, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- A year after pledging to make the Western Michigan University campus a totally wireless computing environment, WMU President Elson S. Floyd teamed up with U.S. Rep. Fred Upton today for a campus "wire-cutting" ceremony to mark the project's success.

More than 600 wireless access ports have been installed in campus buildings, and nearly 30 outdoor units are being placed to carpet the campus with wireless capability that will allow faculty, staff and students to access University networks and the Internet from virtually every corner of the campus. The initiative makes WMU one of the first major research universities in the nation, and the only one in Michigan, to offer campuswide wireless computing.

From Waldo Library to Waldo Stadium, students will be able to use laptop computers and personal digital devices to interact with instructors, surf the Web, check their e-mail or locate research sources. The system also is designed to make technology use both in and out of the classroom more convenient for faculty.

Wireless access is now available in academic buildings, faculty and staff offices, major student gathering places, parking lots, the central campus pedestrian corridors, and in such common areas of residence halls as student lounges and dining areas. Residence hall rooms already offer complete wired access. A total of 65 campus buildings have been outfitted with wireless access points.

"We seized an opportunity that will allow our faculty and students to immediately enjoy the kind of computing access that will one day be commonplace," said Floyd in describing the project. "It's an initiative that puts information in their hands whenever and wherever they may need it, and it will have a major impact on research and other scholarly activities at this University. It is also a fiscally responsible move that has allowed us to transform existing buildings into state-of-the-art information portals, without having to undertake costly retrofitting."

Upton, who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, has been a supporter of WMU's wireless initiative and recently led a successful effort to secure $500,000 in federal funds for WMU and California State University at Monterey Bay to work together to study the benefits to education and industry of a wireless environment. He predicted the wireless campus initiative will put both WMU and Kalamazoo in the spotlight by providing a model for the nation."

"Western Michigan University plays a key role in our region's economy and economic future," said Upton. "We need to give our best and brightest not only the book knowledge they need, but also the hands-on skills that are critical to attracting economic development for our region. The wireless campus is but another example of WMU setting the trend in what will someday be the national standard."

Work began with campus computing and engineering surveys

WMU has been working with Cisco Systems Inc. on the project since last February after Floyd announced the initiative in his annual "State of the University" address. The decision to go wireless was based, in part, on a successful pilot project in WMU's Haworth College of Business that had been launched the previous fall. Cisco completed an extensive engineering site survey of campus facilities, and WMU's information technology staff did a survey of campus computing needs, meeting with faculty, staff and students as part of the process. Installation of access points began last summer, using Cisco's Aironet 350 Series equipment. By early last fall, about 80 percent of campus classrooms were equipped for wireless work. The remaining indoor installations have just been completed, and about 50 percent of the outdoor units are now operational.

WMU's project manager George Kohrman says the wireless capability does not replace, but rather augments, the existing wired access points. Wired connections will remain the preferred choice for computing-intensive areas such as engineering and computer science. While wireless access is not as fast as wired access, it is significantly faster--about 200 times faster--than access through a dial-up modem.

Cost is one-fifth that of hard wiring

The cost savings of using a wireless network to extend computing capability is substantial. Wiring an existing building can cost from five to 10 times as much as installing wireless access points, Kohrman says. Last October, A Chronicle of Higher Education estimate on such costs pegged the cost of a wireless installation at about one-fifth the cost of hard wiring a building. Korhman calls that "a very conservative estimate," and points to locations on the WMU campus where the cost of wiring would have been 10 times the cost of wireless.

Viji Murali, WMU's chief information officer and vice president for information technology, says the size and scope of the University's undertaking will allow it to develop wireless "best practices" that will have applications for other higher education systems, for corporate entities, communities and individuals.

"There is a tremendous sense of excitement on our campus about what we know wireless will allow us to do," Murali says. "Even more exciting is the certainty that this is going to bring about cultural changes we haven't even begun to dream about yet. WMU is going to be a resource for all kinds of organizations out to expand our perceptions and challenge the computing status quo."

Members of the WMU campus community who use the new wireless system will need computing equipment that is configured with wireless cards. Incoming freshmen in the Haworth College of Business are encouraged to purchase laptops through a University purchase plan. Those laptops are already configured for wireless. Faculty recipients of laptops through a faculty computing initiative begun last year by Floyd also are set for wireless computing.

Other laptop users may purchase a high-end wireless card from the University at cost. Authorized users of WMU's system include registered students, faculty and staff. They will register their wireless cards to ensure system security.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 269 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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