California State University, Long Beach
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Photos by Victoria Sanchez
Assisting in creating wireless access on campus are (l-r) Steve La, Bryon Jackson, John Powell, Craig Kleen, Vicki Stuart, Rusty Slota, Chris Budzak, Dennis Ariga and Janet Foster. Not pictured are Rick Dubitsky and Steve Chandler.

Wireless Access on Campus? Now, It’s Just About Everywhere

We’ve got you covered.

At least that’s the hope of Janet Foster and Steve La when it comes to wireless access throughout the CSULB campus.

Foster is the associate vice president for Information Technology Services (ITS) and La is the director of Network Services and Voice Services. La and the ITS staff from Network Services and Voice Services will soon complete phase two of the installation of wireless access points on campus, which will create a better, more comprehensive wireless environment at the university. They expect this phase to be completed before the end of October.

“We’ve been live with wireless on campus for a few years, but we knew it wasn’t rolled out to the extent the campus wanted or needed,” said Foster. “The main reason is that the whole CSU system has been doing a project called ITRP (Infrastructure Terminal Resources Project). The purpose of ITRP is to get all the campuses on a baseline infrastructure for technology, one of them being wireless Internet access, but while the CSU was trying to decide what the standard technology vendor would be, we needed to move ahead with something on our campus for wireless access.”

So, instead of waiting for funding from the CSU to become available for the project, ITS went ahead at its own expense and installed 300 access points around campus a couple of years ago.

“I chaired the committee to select the standard for the CSU, but our campus also had a need to move ahead and implement wireless functionality,” said La. “I couldn’t really chair the committee while also selecting a vendor for our campus, so I stepped down from chairing the committee to focus on our campus’ needs. Our campus proceeded with installing 300 wireless access points from the vendor the CSU eventually selected, Aruba, ahead of the CSU’s schedule. The original 300 access points provided bare coverage and had minimum signal but we recently added 300 more access points during phase two of our implementation because we knew we needed 600 total to cover the whole campus indoors.”

The hardware provided by the ITRP project for the 300 additional wireless access points was ready a year or so later, made all the easier when the CSU selected the same vender, Aruba. This time, the only cost to ITS was for the pulling of the network cable and installing the access points on campus which was approximately $100,000 for labor and cable.

The wireless network works on three separate channels, which is important because if two access points are too close together it can cause interference, so the ability to mix and match channels can help avoid excessive overlap.

Of course, optimum placement of access points on campus is also key, more efficiently achieved by using what are called color-coded “heat maps.” A “white space” on a map is an indication of a dead spot, meaning no wireless access is currently available.

“One thing originally not factored in was the type of wall, which can interfere with the wireless signal,” said La. “It was assumed that everything is flat. So, we corrected that assumption and we think our new plan is better. Now that we are almost done with the remaining access points, we will go back and do a wireless assessment of what the actual measurements are. The assessment is done by literally walking around and recording each of the measurements and having the system print out heat maps from various locations.”

“The heat map tells us if a particular access point covers a certain amount of space and where the next one needs to be located,” said Foster. “We’ve been focusing on building interiors, but there will be a little spillover into some common outside areas, but this phase is just for the buildings. We know we have some wireless usage in the outside areas, however, because users in those areas have been able to tap into the network.”

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While hard-wired speed access will most likely always be faster, the campus environment has an increasing need for wireless access because of the widespread use of laptops and other mobile devices that are or will very soon be part of the everyday culture.

“That’s really where technology is going with all the handheld devices; it’s more and more wireless, so this really just lays the foundation for being able to provide those services when those applications are ready,” said Foster. “Basically, what it comes down to is that our students expect wireless. And so do our faculty, who have more and more need to use wireless capabilities so we are trying to be responsive to that.

“Before we would get feedback that wireless access was unavailable or not reliable, but again that was simply because we hadn’t fully rolled out the project. Now, we want to communicate this because we are at the point where we hope faculty, students and staff will experience improved wireless access and reliability. Phase one and two are in all the campus buildings, but even though we say phase two is complete, it’s not really over because we know we will need to go back and make improvements.”

Naturally, access is focused on areas that are considered high traffic such as the University Library or Horn Center.

“In the University Library we will have 46 access points because we want to make sure every corner of the library is covered,” said La. “One access point can serve a certain amount of users so almost 10 percent of our total campus-wide access points will be in the library. In the academic building next door we are putting in 20 access points because we know that is also pretty heavy user traffic and we are looking at the Horn Center and a couple of other places that would tend to have a high concentration of users. So, rather than spreading the access points out evenly all over the place, we are looking at places that would have a lot of users hanging around.”

In addition, they took into consideration feedback from department managers, chairs, deans and other administrators after asking them if they have areas they wanted to see wireless access made available.

“We don’t pretend that this is going to be a fully saturated campus for wireless access, but it will get a lot closer to where we want to be,” said Foster. “We’re trying to put the reliability and accessibility out there and we want to make continual improvements and investments over time. We should have 100 percent of the interior buildings covered, but not every square foot of the campus. Some places where we had access points before should have a better signal now because of more density and some overlap.”

Next up is phase three, which will begin at the end of the year, budget permitting, and is geared toward providing wireless access to outdoor areas.

“We will do our homework and then by the spring we should know how much it will cost and if we have enough budget to continue adding more access points,” said La. “Placing the devices indoors in relatively simple, but when you put them outdoors you have to provide a data connection and power and put them in a secure and weatherproof place, so we’re working on that.”