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Higher ed network managers talk headaches and rewards

Jon Gold | March 16, 2016
Matthew Almand of Texas A&M shares how his team is addressing the increasing need for Wi-Fi in the campus.

Institutions of higher education can often feel like self-contained worlds of their own, and their wireless networks are much the same – subject to unique demands and rules, the campus network is a distinctive challenge for the IT pro.

Keeping the various plates spinning can be a challenge. Having to deal with a combination of regulatory, capacity, and hardware issues, all interrelated, is a complex task, requiring an ability to shift gears quickly, as network pros told us last week at WLAN company Aruba’s Atmosphere conference in Las Vegas.

Matthew Almand is a network architect at Texas A&M. He says that one of his day-to-day issues is provisioning for Wi-Fi in areas where lots of simultaneous connections are required.

“If we’re talking about classrooms, then we’re talking about the high-density type stuff,” he says. “And these are kind of on the extreme edge, but we can have classrooms of 600, 700, 800 seats, even a couple thousand-seat classrooms in some new facilities.”

But that’s small-scale next to Almand’s previous project, which was installing both Wi-Fi and a distributed antenna system at A&M’s Kyle Field, a historic football stadium that seats nearly 103,000 – the largest number in the SEC – and was recently renovated.

“We didn’t have a very good football season, but at the same time, we didn’t actively promote our Wi-Fi – we wanted to underpromise and overdeliver,” he says.

Almand said that surveys of the student body showed demand for an outdoor Wi-Fi network, which A&M has begun to operate on a large quad near the student union – but the desire for broader coverage is still present.

“The problem there is that you’ve given it to them, and now they just want more,” he states. “It doesn’t just happen overnight.”

Urgent demand for WiFi

But student demand can be a positive thing, according to Sean O’Connor, the assistant CIO for Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Until fairly recently, he says, WPI’s leadership didn’t understand the urgency of the demand for well-managed Wi-Fi.

“[T]he curve was so steep from ‘oh this is kinda nice to have’ to ‘this is a must-have, critical network’ that it kind of snuck up on them,” O’Connor says.

The tipping point came two years ago.

“We started seeing such a drastic increase in this changeover to ‘we don’t need wired, we need wireless,’” he says. Students demanded that it get faster and more ubiquitous, faculty started to use it in the classroom, and the ball was off and rolling.

Armed with public opinion on campus, O’Connor says he and the team were able to make their case for a radical wireless overhaul successfully. “It’s always good to have student and faculty backing anytime you need money from a university,” he quipped.


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