Concordia University rolls out 802.11n network

Concordia University is the first 802.11n-enabled university in the country, according to the school, forging a new path that will allow the university to better push out key applications and reduce dropped signals for the scores of students dependent on their wireless devices.

Cisco is providing the Aironet 1250 Series access points that the Montreal-based campus is using to augment its existing network with 802.11n capability, the latest project in a partnership that has seen the company provide a wireless LAN and VoIP over the past seven years.

The project continues the school’s habit of being on the cutting edge of network strategies. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.11n standard hasn’t even been ratified yet. According to Burton Group analyst Paul Debeasi, however, this shouldn’t provide any trouble, as the Draft 2 version has been deemed interoperable by the Wi-Fi Forum, and the final specifications from the IEEE (expected to come down next year) should only have minor changes.

Alex Peres, a research analyst for network equipment with Toronto-based IDC Canada, said that this marks one of the first large 802.11n networks in Canada as well. He sees the university as being on the cutting edge as other institutions probably won’t follow for at least half-a-year or more. “802.11n is pretty new, and the Canadian market is very risk-averse,” said Peres. The current set-up already has 95 per cent coverage over campus, and also includes a mesh network for external wireless that extends one kilometer beyond campus to service the thousands of students in the area.

“We’re becoming an ISP,” said Andrew McAusland, the school’s associate vice-president of instructional and information technology services. The university has had to catch up to demand—McAusland said that demand for wireless has almost quadrupled every year since 2003. “Wireless connectivity is a de facto position now. We don’t have the luxury of aging with our clients; younger ones come in every year and want the new stuff,” he said.

Eighty per cent of the students use the wireless network on a regular basis, and often overload the most-used access points (such as around the student lounges or the library). “They find this annoying—and these clients have a particularly low threshold for that kind of thing,” said McAusland. “That was the beginning of accommodating many more users on the access points, with higher throughput.”

The first phase of the 802.11n project will see McAusland add 802.11n connectivity to those high-traffic access points; 22 802.11n-enabled points have been set up since last month, out of the 200 in total. Said McAusland: “We’re putting both bands on these boxes and seeing how it works out. As more and more 802.11n laptops are hitting the market now, we hope to see completion of this project in 24 months.”

The university’s current initiatives also have a lot to do with the need for speed—in addition to the campus’ status as a de facto ISP, it’s also a phone company, software provider, and storage vendor. Said McAusland: “We’re going for improved manageability, and being able to push services more efficiently over the network.” Concordia offers many bandwidth-intensive programs and applications, including Internet access (both via laptop and cellphone), access to a virtual Microsoft Office suite, one gigabyte of storage, and telephonic ability.

Concordia also offers all these services for a monthly fee of only $8.99. “(802.11n will help) move IT from a cost centre to a cost-neutral centre,” said McAusland.

–With files from Matt Hamblen, ComputerWorld

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