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Faster wireless Internet planned for Twin Cities and Rochester campuses

By Ben Neeser

Steve Fletty installs a wireless access point.
Steve Fletty, a network design engineer with the Office of Information Technology Network Design, installs a wireless access point at 2218 University Avenue.

From Brief, May 7, 2008

It seems that wherever you go on campus, you find a similar scene: students passing the time between classes parked in front of a laptop. They're checking e-mail, working on assignments, or browsing their favorite Web sites. Over the past few years, laptop computers and other wireless devices have become so widespread, and technology has become so integral to education and research that people have come to expect the University to provide them with the most up-to-date wireless technology available. The current wireless network on the Twin Cities and Rochester campuses no longer meets that expectation. And that's exactly why the Office of Information Technology (OIT) is poised to launch a brand new wireless network starting on May 15. Wireless networking developed at the University of Minnesota as a grassroots effort. OIT provided a limited amount of access points across the Twin Cities campus wherever they could, but if University departments wanted to provide wireless signals in additional locations, it was up to them to do it. The individual departments had to buy and install the access points themselves, and then register them with OIT. The result was a mishmash of different wireless equipment that was very difficult for OIT to manage and support. Now that much of the existing equipment is aging, OIT is taking the opportunity to replace all of it with a seamless wireless network that is made up of cutting-edge technology. OIT conducted an RFP process to select a single vendor to provide the equipment, and Trapeze Networks was selected from among 23 other wireless providers.

New technology

The new network will use the 802.11n standard, the latest and greatest in wireless technology. But what does this mean for wireless users?

It means that once the new network is fully installed, the U will have some of the fastest wireless service available. Depending upon the wireless technology that is built into your laptop and where you are, you could see speeds of up to 300 million bits per second. However, this high speed is theoretical, and most customers running the 802.11n standard will see actual throughput at speeds closer to 50 million bits per second. The new technology also offers users better security: WPA2 encryption (a form of data encryption, which secures wireless network traffic from eavesdropping).

The new wireless network will be more manageable to OIT. Its staff would soon be able to identify people who were misusing network capacity or launching Internet attacks, and kick them off the network. Another benefit to OIT: it can use computer-aided design drawings of buildings and floor plans to plot location to place the access points, in order to achieve maximum coverage. There will also be new options available for guest access. During the first phase of the project, which is scheduled to begin on May 15, OIT will replace the existing 2,200 access points--about 40 percent of the campus (mostly classrooms and indoor public spaces).

"We calculated it would take nearly 10,000 access points to canvas the entire University Twin Cities and Rochester," says Louis Hammond, assistant director at OIT's Networking and Telecommunications Services.

OIT hopes to extend wireless coverage to 100 percent over the next five years, but more funding will be needed for that to be possible. "While we are not initially deploying full coverage, we are building the technical foundation with scalability to accommodate campus-wide coverage in the future," says Hammond.

In the meantime, OIT is requiring that all new construction and renovation projects include full coverage wireless service.


OIT field staff will be going building to building all summer long, converting each to the new wireless network. When they do, they will first have to remove all old wireless equipment, and then replace it. This will mean that on the day that a building is being cut over to the new wireless network, you should expect some wireless outages. Signs will be posted at building entrances to inform you when work is being done there and a cutover is occurring.

If you would like to see when a particular building is scheduled to be cut over, you can view the list on the U of M Wireless Web site.