Broadband wireless pioneers

Convenience and the ability to access the Internet anywhere at any time are driving an increasing number of public and private sector organizations to implement a wireless technology solution.

Organizations that have adopted this up and coming technology, such as Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, the Bank of Montreal, Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., and the Toronto Parking Authority, agree that although they realize its benefits, they’ve each faced their own limitations and challenges.

Ryerson Polytechnic University

Ryerson Polytechnic University’s labs during peak times are similar to an airport with students constantly hovering and waiting for it to be their turn.

This is according to Ken Woo, manager of network engineering at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, who adds that in order to stop this from happening, the school opted to implement a wireless campus.

“We’ve actually had fights break out in labs because somebody was on too long,” he says. “So the wireless allows people to be in the library … where they can sit in a cubicle, in the cafeteria, or out in the hallway, for example, and surf the Web and check their e-mail, rather than using resources in the labs where people could be doing higher-end things like graphics and multi-media. And being a downtown campus our real estate is really minimal and to put more labs in, it’s a really expensive proposition. You’re taking away from the classroom every time you do that.”

With over 90 access points on the campus, students and faculty can use wireless devices in the library, all the major lounges, cafeterias, any wide-open space, and one of the two residences, which was originally a hotel. According to Woo, although the one residence was wired, the hotel, which was acquired by the university in 1996, was not. But to wire it, he adds, the school was facing a few roadblocks.

“To try to run conduits to all the rooms was expensive, but not only that, aesthetically it would not be very pleasing,” he says. “It would look like a mechanical room … because you’d be running conduits down the hall in every room. And the second thing is there’s no place to consolidate all the wiring because there’s no communication closets.”

So by using technology from Avaya, formerly the Enterprise Networks Group of Lucent Technologies, Ryerson Polytechnic University implemented wireless technology in the residence in 1998, and then progressively implemented it across the campus.

“It’s an on going thing as we get new buildings, and as certain schools want to be more mobile, then more access points go in,” Woo says. “For instance, in 1999 the whole business building went wireless.”

According to Woo, one of the challenges the school faced when implementing the wireless technology was finding the optimal transmission pattern, particularly in the converted hotel.

“Because the residence is run as a hotel in the summer we couldn’t get into a lot of the rooms to do transmission tests,” he says. “So we sort of flew by the seat of our pants and said, ‘We’ll put one here, we’ll put one there.’ Sure enough come September when the students were in, [some of them couldn’t get a signal]. So we had to do some retrofitting and now it’s working perfectly.”

As far as benefits go, Woo says, they didn’t have to lay out a lot in terms of cabling infrastructure, and the wireless allows students and faculty to roam anywhere on campus and still be able to use the wireless technology.

He also says one of the most important things to do before implementing a wireless strategy is to do a really good site survey in order to best locate access points.

“The other important this is security in order to make sure unauthorized wireless users don’t have access to your network,” Woo says. “We control that through our network infrastructure.”

Bank of Montreal

The Bank of Montreal’s strategy is to be anywhere its customers want it to be at any time, and wireless technology is making that happen, according to Mark Dickelman, vice-president, m-commerce and wireless at the Bank of Montreal Group in Toronto.

“The tag line is live more, bank less, and the way you do that is you don’t spend time in lines and you don’t spend time waiting to access your financial information,” he says. “Instead, we’re able to meet customers where they need the information rather than having them come to us.”

According to Dickelman, Bank of Montreal first launched its wireless access in May 1999, allowing customers today to access the full range of its banking services electronically for their Bank of Montreal accounts, such as pay bills, transfer money between accounts, do transactions in real-time, see what their balance is, pay line of credit, and reorder cheques. On the brokerage side, for customers of Nesbitt Burns, customers have complete investment access, they’re able to trade in real-time, as well as access their portfolio and the status of their investments.

“So basically everything you want to do financially you can do in the palm of your hand using the mobile device of your choice,” he says. “The vast majority are either browser-enabled phones and RIM [Research In Motion Ltd.] BlackBerries, which are really the primary devices that we’re supporting for our customers today.”

The benefit of wireless technology for Bank of Montreal’s customers, Dickelman says, is convenience and access.

“Our customers talk about how they can change their buying patterns now because they know exactly how much they have in their account at any point in time,” he says. “The sense of power and control it gives customers over their financial status is very real. You can sit down, turn on the phone, hit a couple of keys and get your balance in a matter of seconds, and you can see which transactions have cleared.”

But one of the challenges to overcome, he says, is helping customers understand just what’s possible with technology today.

“It’s very hard to describe a new technology capability to the general population,” Dickelman says. “And if you think about it, when PCs first came out they were kind of perceived as souped-up typewriters and they weren’t attractive to a large part of the population. But the fact is there’s very powerful technology available today in your hand.”

Laurentian University

Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. doesn’t have the physical room to continually build student-computing labs on an ongoing basis, so the decision was made to implement wireless technology in three of the buildings on campus.

This is according to Mark Lafontaine, manager of network systems at Laurentian University, who says the wireless technology is currently available in the classroom building, the library, and the arts building.

“In the library we have a new extension called the Wallace Reading Room, which is a plush type of seating area that’s meant as a gathering meeting room,” he says. “They didn’t want any technology to be seen in there, so they didn’t want any network connections available where … there would be wires hanging all over. So that was our initial reason for wanting to go wireless in the library.”

According to Lafontaine, the library also offers students access to the Internet wirelessly in a quiet environment at study carols behind closed doors.

The reason for putting wireless technology in the classroom building, he says, is due to the expense of setting up a teaching classroom with a computer, wired infrastructure, and a projector.

“We found it would be better to have a ‘classroom on a cart’ where teachers have a computer that’s wireless, along with a projector, and they are able to bring it into any of the classrooms in that building,” Lafontaine says. “And obviously the same availability is there for students if they have a laptop.”

According to Lafontaine, although the library and classroom buildings are entirely wireless, only the first floor of the arts building has wireless access.

“It’s about a 600-foot hallway that is probably the busiest place on campus because it’s between the Students’ Centre, the classroom building, and the library,” he says. “It’s a stone wall on one side and glass on the other and because we don’t have a wiring infrastructure anywhere in place, the wireless makes perfect sense.”

According to Lafontaine, one of the biggest challenges in implementing wireless technology is not knowing whether the faculty and the students will be scared of the technology or if they’ll embrace it.

“And that’s what we don’t know,” he says. “So we’re designing the infrastructure to be based on the fact that yes there will be a lot of acceptance. But the biggest thing to overcome is the fear of the wireless technology itself, and I think part of that is having a plan in place so that it is an accepted technology and not a feared technology.”

Toronto Parking Authority

The Toronto Parking Authority is replacing a number of its coin-operated parking metres with wireless pay-and-display parking machines.

Ian Maher, director of planning and information technology services at the Toronto Parking Authority, says that by the end of this year there will be approximately 1,000 pay-and-display machines, of which about 900 will be on the streets and 100 will be in off-street lots.

“And although we’ve had pay-and-display in off-street lots for 20 years, the wireless is a different spin on them,” Maher says. “On the street typically there’s about eight metres (coin-operated) per (pay-and-display) machine, so the 900 machines would replace about 7,200 metres.”

According to Maher, with pay-and-display machines a customer parks the car, pays the machine, and it gives the customer proof of payment, which is then to be displayed on the windshield. Enforcement officers can then verify who’s paid and who has not paid.

“Before the wireless technology there was no communications between the pay-and-display machines (on the off-street lots) and the head office, so the maintenance of the equipment and the monitoring of the equipment had to be done on foot by visiting the actual equipment,” he says. “The first job of the morning for our technicians was to visit each machine to make sure they were working.”

According to Maher, the problem with that is it’s very labour-intensive and it doesn’t allow the technicians much time to do anything else while they’re doing that.

“So what the wireless gives you, and this is the essence of it, is the machines report their status, they report problems with themselves, and they report other information required for operational purposes,” he says. “We have a central monitoring station and all the information reports through that which is in a dispatch centre for our technicians. We’re now able to dispatch on failure of events – such as if a machine is out of tickets or if the coin box is full – as opposed to finding it on random surveillance.”

According to Maher, before the wireless technology was available, 100 technicians would have been needed to check on the 1,000 pay-and-display machines every morning, whereas with the wireless technology, four technicians are all that’s needed.

“They don’t run a circuit anymore because they’re on call,” he says. “So instead of having to visit every machine once a day to see if they’re working, which is what they used to do by opening the machine and running a diagnostic on it, now they don’t go unless they get a call.”