Canadian universities make the grade to wireless

Wireless networks are used in the business world to help employees be more productive while on the road, or to link remote offices. A new Intel Corp. study reveals wireless is playing an increasingly important role in the academic world as well – helping university and college students to enhance their educational experience.

Titled ‘The Most Unwired College Campuses’, the study reviewed the wireless status of universities across the U.S. Unlike last year, when many campuses reported limited wireless network capabilities, 74 per cent of the top 50 schools that participated in the this year’s survey reported 100 per cent wireless coverage. In 2004, the survey found only 14 per cent of campuses were completely unwired.

While the study was conducted in the U.S., many of its findings are applicable to Canadian universities as well, one analyst believes.

Universities here too are seeing a proliferation of wireless, noted Michelle Warren, IT industry analyst for Evans Research Group in Toronto. “Students are using notebooks more and more and mobile computing is really taking off.” She said students want e-mail and access to information all the time, and it’s in the best interest of universities and colleges to respond to those needs.

Another driver for wireless in universities, said Warren, is the fact that universities are increasingly relying on the Internet to help instructors communicate with students and vice-versa. “As universities, and as a society, we embrace the possibility of the Internet and e-mail communication; wireless is a natural progression.”

And that’s how its been for Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Student demand prompted the university to go wireless in 2003. “Our student union and individual students had requested [a wireless network] for some time,” said Charles Crosby, manager of media relations for Dalhousie. “I don’t think modern campuses have any alternatives. Students are increasingly plugged in. That’s how they do assignments, stay in touch with their professors…exist as students. If campuses are not wireless, you are not going to be competitive.”

Dalhousie has about 75 per cent wireless coverage in mostly high traffic areas like the student union building. Any new buildings that go up on campus will become wireless. Crosby expects the university to be 100 per cent wireless by next year.

Over in Western Canada, at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Jonn Martell, manager for UBC wireless, said his post-secondary institution foresaw a wireless world and took steps towards it in early 2000.

“The wireless network was part of a campus-wide network upgrade to make all [university] buildings high-speed compatible.” Martell began to question whether it would make sense to future-proof the campus with access points and infrastructure required to provide wireless connectivity everywhere. He concluded that it did make sense, and in February 2002 UBC had its first wireless deployment at the campus’ main library.

Martell calls UBC’s wireless network the largest campus deployment in the world. The university has about 1,600 access points for its main campus in Point Grey, its downtown Vancouver campus and its new campus in the Okanagan area of B.C.

When the wireless network went up at UBC in 2002 it had about 1,500 unique users and Martell said this year’s number is expected to be about 22,000, mostly comprised of students.

But what are these college students using wireless technology for?

Some of the wireless trends the Intel survey noted with U.S. colleges include professors using wirelessly-enabled PCs to transmit data to LCD projectors from anywhere in the classroom and administering exams online. Students are able to check the status of their laundry loads and washing machine availability with their wireless laptops.

Although Dalhousie and UBC are not using their wireless networks the same way their counterparts are in the U.S., UBC is doing some interesting things of its own with the technology such as wireless Voice over IP, which Martell hopes to have operational by 2006.

Other Canadian universities that have gone wireless include McGill University in Montreal, the University of Toronto, the University of Calgary and the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

And Warren believes the trend with continue. “I don’t think it will be very far in the future when all schools are 100 per cent wireless,” she says.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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