NDSU takes big strides to meet growing demand for wireless
More than 20,000 wireless devices – including laptops, smartphones, and tablets – connect to North Dakota State University's wireless network each week. Demand for wireless access has grown substantially across campus during the past several years, and the NDSU Information Technology Division is implementing innovative solutions to meet student, faculty and staff needs.
User expectations for wireless have changed dramatically since the university’s wireless network was put in place in 2005.
"Wireless is now the most widely-used network commodity on campus," said Terry Wieland, director of Network Engineering and Operations in the Information Technology Division. According to Wieland, the wireless network was initially built to supplement the university's wired network. However, metrics gathered by his team show wireless usage has now outpaced use of the wired network, likely due to consumer demand for mobility.
Ask NDSU students about their wireless usage, and their answers will likely align with Wieland’s statistics. NDSU sophomore Taylor Schmidt said he brings three wireless devices with him to campus everyday – an iPhone, iPad and Macbook laptop.
Tanner Langley, a first-year student, said wireless connectivity plays a major role in the work he does as a student. "I take notes on my phone," Langley said.
In effort to meet the growing demand for mobility and connectivity, Network Engineering recently completed a major overhaul of the university’s wireless network. The team upgraded equipment from the network core to its edge. The project was completed using a three-phase approach.
Three-phase wireless improvement project
In phase one, Network Engineering upgraded the core infrastructure underlying the wireless network. Wieland said his team's efforts focused on future-proofing the network. "The core infrastructure had aged past its prime," Wieland said. "It had to be reassessed and restructured to provide reliable 21st century networking solutions and resources going forward."
Marc Wallman, interim vice president for information technology, said the Information Technology Division had recognized the need to replace outdated wireless equipment, but did not possess the resources required to do so.
"During the 2012-2013 fiscal year, we worked with the NDSU Technology Fee Advisory Committee and the Student Fee Advisory Board to secure a funding increase that enabled critical improvements to this essential service," Wallman said.
The electrical infrastructure in the university’s data center also had to be upgraded to accommodate the increased electrical loads of new network equipment installed during phase one combined with other campus information technology systems. A 12-hour campuswide IT outage was scheduled in June 2013 to complete the electrical upgrade, which also added significant backup power capabilities for core campus technologies, including wireless.
Phase two centered on replacing wireless access points in classrooms and other hard-to-reach areas. Most of the work for this phase was completed during the academic off-season, including winter break and the summer months, when those spaces are not frequently in use.
Upgrading the wireless network in classrooms was a priority given the increase in use of wireless technologies for teaching and learning. This semester, instructors in more than 45 courses are using wireless student response technology in classrooms to take attendance, administer electronic quizzes, and conduct question-answer polls to augment discussions and problem-solving activities. To participate, students can use a designated wireless clicker device, or they can connect using a smartphone, tablet or laptop.
During phase three, wireless access points were replaced in high-traffic public areas on campus, including the student union and library. These buildings provide common areas for studying and lounging between classes. The student union is also a popular location for workshops and conferences.
More than 450 new wireless access points were installed on the campus during the first and second phases to replace outdated equipment.
The new access points use cutting-edge technology to minimize radio frequency interference, which occurs when unwanted radio waves disrupt access to the network. Cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, wireless game controllers, microwaves, and wireless printers, mice and keyboards can all cause interference.
Each access point can sense radio frequency interference and within seconds automatically adjust its channel to avoid that interference. The technology can track intermittent sources of interference and send notifications to network administrators, who can then optimize the system so future disruptions can be minimized.
The new equipment provides expanded coverage, meaning users can be farther away from an access point and still connect. Each access point also accommodates more users and devices. According to Wieland, up to 100 devices can connect to each new access point. In 2005, when wireless was first launched on campus, each access point was designed to accommodate 15 devices.
The last of these new access points was installed in late January.
Now that all three phases of the wireless improvement project are complete, some students are noticing the difference. "I can stay on the wireless network when walking in between buildings," said first-year student Jake Lynch. "I don't get out of range anymore when on campus."
Improving wireless in residence halls
Wireless equipment in NDSU's residence halls also needed to be updated, but funding for new equipment was limited. Network Engineering repurposed some of the equipment that was removed from classrooms and public spaces to improve wireless coverage in residence hall lounges, study areas and student rooms.
Approximately 50 floor-to-ceiling tension rods were installed in student rooms to hold additional access points in spaces with poor wireless coverage. The tension rod concept is seemingly simplistic; each rod looks like an extended version of those used to hang shower curtains. But they provide an innovative solution for improving wireless connectivity in these spaces without damaging walls or ceilings. The rods and access points can be relocated easily to accommodate changes in the space that may block or absorb a wireless signal—including moving furniture, hanging posters or stacking books on a shelf.
Planning for the future
Access to financial resources is key for keeping the wireless network up-to-date to accommodate changes in technology. "The biggest piece in the success of such a service is a strong financial foundation," Wallman said. "The money approved by NDSU’s Technology Fee Advisory Committee and Student Fee Advisory Board for wireless has gone into a dedicated fund so that we have resources going forward."
Steve Sobiech, acting executive director for the Information Technology Division’s Enterprise Computing and Infrastructure department, said he is not sure whether growth trends for the number of wireless devices on campus will continue or eventually plane off.
"We’ve seen people go from bringing one device to campus, to two devices, and now three," Sobiech said. "People have their smartphone, tablet and laptop. It’s difficult to know how much future growth to expect, but I think it’s safe to say wireless usage will never decrease."
Network Engineering will continue to face challenges associated with accommodating the need for more wireless coverage, greater capacities, and faster speeds.
"We’ve made significant progress this past year, but we haven’t stopped looking for ways to improve wireless access on campus," Wieland said. Network Engineering will continue to monitor the network and make adjustments in areas with weak or no wireless signal.
Wireless interference continues to be an issue on campus, despite Network Engineering’s efforts to minimize it as much as possible. The NDSU Information Technology Division monitors online social media, including Twitter, to keep a finger on the pulse of students’ experiences with wireless in particular.
Sobiech said this strategy helps in identifying and resolving wireless issues as quickly as possible. "We’re often able to identify problems and initiate work toward fixing them before they are even reported to the Help Desk."
Several factors can influence a person’s experience with wireless, many of which are beyond the control of Network Engineering. Proximity to a wireless access point, total number of devices and traffic on the network, and sources of interference can all affect wireless connectivity.
Students, faculty and staff can use these tips to optimize their wireless connection and avoid interference.
- Move your mobile device closer to a wireless access point, where you are more likely to receive a stronger signal.
- Relocate your device to another area in your room so you are further away from interfering devices or obstructive materials.
- Turn off wireless on your cell phone if you are using cellular for your data connection.
- If possible, use an Ethernet cable to connect to a wired network port when downloading large files or streaming long videos.
If wireless access problems persist, contact the IT Help Desk at 231-8685 (option 1) or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about wireless services at NDSU, go to www.ndsu.edu/its/wireless.
Quick facts about NDSU’s wireless network
- 89 buildings on campus with wireless
- 2 outdoor (green) wireless locations: Dakota Plaza and the Babbling Brook
- 851 wireless access points in 2014, up from 24 in 2005
- On average 20,000 unique devices connect to wireless per week during the academic year