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One big Wi-Fi rollout: 12,000 college dorm residents

UMass Amherst paid $6M for 802.11n over 5GHz channel designed for heavy data users

Wi-Fi on college campuses is nothing new, but the University of Massachusetts at Amherst recently finished one of the biggest 802.11n deployments ever, providing wireless access to some 12,000 student dormitory residents.

The project required physically unplugging 12,000 Ethernet ports to each student's room and installing 2,000 Aruba Networks access points (APs) in two phases over the past two summers, officials said.

The two-year rollout cost nearly $6 million, said Dan Blanchard, senior advisor to the CIO at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, located 90 miles west of Boston on a sprawling 1,450-acre campus.

The university's hosts 12,000 resident students, one of the largest on-campus housing totals in the U.S., though many large campuses exceed the state university's overall enrollment of 27,000 students, Blanchard noted.

The major impetus for the project came from students, many of whom had installed rogue APs that caused network and security problems.

"Students were plugging in their own APs with no coordination for adjacent channels," Blanchard said in an interview. "Things were insecure and all the bad things you can imagine. We either had to stop them from having wireless or do it in a professional way. We didn't want to be the [rogue] network police, so the right answer was to install a professional network."

The university's commitment to 802.11n should provide fast data throughput for the for 90% of students with laptops and a "whole slew of mobile devices" such as iPhones that run video, games and other rich applications, Blanchard said.

The university chose Aruba APs running over the 5 GHz channel instead of 2.5 GHz, which was a trade-off. The 5 GHz signal doesn't radiate as far as 2.5 GHz, requiring more APs in a given area, but 5GHz provides greater data throughput, Blanchard noted.

"The 5GHz has higher throughput over the life of the products, which means increasing the number of devices, but it's simply what our customers want," Blanchard explained.

While the project cost in the millions of dollars, it was less than it would have cost to upgrade the category 3 cable that provided 10 Mbit Ethernet service, which was first installed in dorm rooms in the 1980s, Blanchard said.

"People don't want a wired network anymore," he said. "It's not where customers want to go."

The university will continue to provide wired access to researchers, labs and data centers, some with multi-gigabit connections, Aruba said in a statement. However, wireless will be the primary access type, covering 80% of the campus.

Maintaining the wired network was relatively simple compared to maintaining the new wireless network, Blanchard conceded. "We have to send [technicians] out more frequently than before, because there's no way of testing links remotely," he explained.

A problems could be traced to a non-functioning laptop Wi-Fi radio or to a wrong configuration in the laptop or device, he said. Such problems are something difficult to detect or fix remotely, he added.

"We're still struggling with all that [wireless troubleshooting] but we're up to the challenge," he said. "We have pretty extensive network support" that starts with a help desk of more than 20 people.

Aruba said its Mobile Virtual Enterprise architecture is built into the UMass Amherst Wi-Fi rollout, giving greater infrastructure support to the dense number of devices and data uses on the campus.

Blanchard said Aruba has been a "very helpful" partner in the project.

The university had initially worked with Cisco on Wi-Fi but "moved to Aruba for various reasons." He didn't elaborate.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen , or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

Read more about mobile and wireless in Computerworld's Mobile and Wireless Topic Center.


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