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Demand prompts campuses to increase wireless capacity

| Monday, Sept. 20, 2010

A decade ago, college students plugged in their laptops. Today, wireless connectivity is the norm.

Ever-increasing demand has local colleges expanding the capacity of their wireless Internet networks.

California University of Pennsylvania is embarking on an ambitious project that will give every student, faculty and staff member free Wi-Fi access. The initiative, which could cost up to $2.1 million, should be completed within the year, said Charles Mance, vice president for Cal's technology services.

Still, Cal hasn't been neglecting its wireless capability. The number of wireless access points, or "hot spots," has grown from 100 four years ago to about 350 today, Mance said. Jesse Josephic, 22, a senior majoring in computer science from North Huntingdon, rates the coverage as "pretty decent."

"It gets done what I need," Josephic said. "Certain areas are spotty. It definitely could improve."

Fewer students are plugging in to access the Internet -- even though that method provides the best productivity and speed, said Bill Balint, chief information officer at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

It also offers the best access. IUP has 17,000 places to plug in. Hot spots number only 725, still more than seven times the number in 2006, Balint said.

"As wireless devices have become dramatically more prominent, wireless access points become more and more important," he said.

Another way to measure how much Internet demand has grown on campuses is by the megabytes of bandwidth in their networks. A network's bandwidth is analogous to the pipes that deliver water to homes. Cal and IUP each had 10 MB of bandwidth a decade ago. Cal now has 300, and Balint projects IUP will have 400 in November. The University of Pittsburgh had 50 in 2000 and has 10 times as much today.

Most schools pay for Wi-Fi expansion and Internet service, in part, by charging students a technology fee.

For example, Pitt charges $175 per semester for full-time students and $100 for part-time students, said Jinx Walton, director of computing services and systems development.

Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned schools, such as Cal and IUP, charge $232 per year.

Each school monitors bandwidth usage, and officials pay for more when they need it, college and information officers said.

Internet service providers such as Verizon are doing their part, too, having learned how to quickly boost the ability of their networks to accommodate the arrival of thousands of students every fall.

Adding capacity "typically involves adding computing hardware to existing cell tower," spokeswoman Laura Merritt said.

Nearly $100 million in federal stimulus money awarded in February will be used to increase the wireless connectivity of nonurban universities, K-12 school districts, public safety groups and health care organizations, said Jeff Reel, executive director of the Keystone Initiative for Network-based Education and Research.

The 1,600-mile network will benefit 39 Pennsylvania counties, said Art Stephens, vice chancellor of the State System of Higher Education. The project is planned for completion by early 2013. Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania could be on board in early 2012.

"It's going to bring broadband to unserved and underserved communities," Reel said.

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