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Area Campuses Scramble to handle Wi-Fi Demands

Posted by MalloryLawrence on May 15, 2012

MIDDLETON JOURNAL - May 14, 2012

By Dave Larsen, Staff Writer Updated 11:43 AM Monday, May 14, 2012

A spike in the number of college students using mobile devices to access the Internet has area schools scrambling to handle the increased load on their wireless networks.

Wright State University, Miami University and the University of Dayton are making costly upgrades to expand their networks. UD also is negotiating with mobile network providers to boost campus cellular coverage at the companies’ cost.

“We are looking to enhance the ability of students’ mobile devices to connect with our campus applications and infrastructure,” said Tom Skill, UD associate provost and chief information officer.

Nationally, 55 percent of undergraduate students reported owning a smartphone last year, compared with 33 percent in 2009, according to the Educause Center for Applied Research.

Miami University this year saw a 20 percent increase in wireless users from the previous school year, with more than 10,000 devices using its network at any given time, said Mark Chouteau, the school’s senior network engineer.

Miami is spending $250,000 annually to add 250 wireless access points each year, which will bring its total to more than 2,000 access points across its campuses in Oxford, Middletown, Hamilton and West Chester Twp., said Chris Bernard, director of network engineering and telecommunications.

“The biggest challenge we have is being able to continue architecting and running the network to facilitate the additional devices,” Bernard said.

Wright State has expanded and upgraded its wireless network during the past 18 months at a cost of $250,000 to accommodate about 19,000 unique wireless devices every week, including smartphones, tablets, laptop computers and gaming systems, said Larry Fox, associate director of technical services. The school has nearly 700 access points, he said.

UD’s campus has nearly 1,500 Wi-Fi access points.

Funds for the technology upgrades were budgeted and came from university accounts, officials said.

College students today are different from those of five or 10 years ago in terms of technology. Student desktop computer ownership declined by more than 25 percent from 2006 to 2009, while laptop ownership increased by nearly the same percent, according to Educause.

Eighty-seven percent of students own laptops, which typically feature built-in wireless capability.

At Miami University, the average student owns three wireless devices, including laptops, smartphones and tablets, Chouteau said.

Most UD students arrive on campus with a smartphone or other such cellular device for communicating, Skill said.

“If we are to encounter students where they live, work and play it is through their mobile device. That is where they interact the most,” he said.

UD is working with AT&T to install a distributed antenna system (DAS) to provide enhanced cellular coverage to campus residence halls and academic classrooms, where cell service can be spotty.

Miami and Wright State both have AT&T antenna systems that were provided and are maintained at the company’s expense. Wright State’s DAS allows for cell service in the basement tunnels that connect most campus buildings and also serves the surrounding community, Fox said.

AT&T has expanded its mobile Internet coverage at or near Ohio colleges and universities as part of the company’s $1.4 billion investment in its state networks in the last three years to support growing demand for advanced wireless devices and services, said Holly Hollingsworth, an AT&T spokeswoman.

“A DAS installation requires a partnership with the owner of the facility the DAS covers, and every DAS agreement and installation process is unique,” she said.

College students typically start school on their parents’ cellphone plans and then sign up for their own service around sophomore or junior year as they move toward independence, Skill said.

“The cell providers know that being on a college campus and having a good-quality signal on your campus may ultimately result in them getting a customer for life,” he said.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2419 or dlarsen@DaytonDailyNews.com.