- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The unobtrusive white box in the center of the break room’s ceiling is all but unnoticeable unless you’re specifically looking for it.

It’s doubtful that University of Arkansas students even look up when they pop into the second-floor room to grab a soft drink or a bag of chips from one of the vending machines. A green light signifies it’s working but not in use, while a red light means it’s being used, Arkansas Business reported (http://bit.ly/1nzkmPC ).

If there is no light, well, the students and faculty at the J.B. Hunt Center for Academic Excellence would likely be the first to know when their tablet or smartphone flashes the dreaded “not connected to the Internet” message.

The little white box, one of 1,600 installed across the Fayetteville campus, is a wireless access point. The five-story 120,000-square-foot Hunt building, built in 2007, has 56 such access points.

If the Hunt Center were being built now, it would have many more than 56. During the past two years, Arkansas has installed nearly 1,000 wireless access points in residence halls and academic buildings, and officials said that is just the halfway point of getting the university tuned in - wirelessly - to the Internet.

“We’re running to catch up now,” said Dennis Brewer, the university’s associate vice chancellor for information technology.

Brewer said research has shown that incoming freshmen typically have between four and five wireless devices. Experience has shown that those freshmen expect to have wireless access to the Internet when they’re on campus.

“It’s as important as electricity coming out of the walls,” Brewer said. “That puts a big demand on our wireless network. We used to think ‘one port per pillow.’ Nowadays, students don’t plug anything in.”

Students don’t plug anything in, but they sure use the heck out of the Internet.

As a general estimate, streaming a high-definition video uses about 4 megabits per second; there are 1,000 megabits in a gigabit. Brewer said the university tracks Web usage and it averages between 2.5 and 3 gigabits a second during peak times.

“Most of that is Netflix in the evenings,” said David Bruce, the university’s associate chief information officer for Campus Networks.

Bruce said some freshmen, most of whom are required to live in on-campus housing, bring their own wireless routers to connect devices to the university’s Internet server. That is forbidden because it mucks up other wireless connections, and a freshman in a dorm could always old-school the connection with an Ethernet cable.

Bruce said the University of Arkansas has campus-wide access to the Internet. But plugging a cord from the wall into your laptop and opening up a browser is so 2005.

“Freshmen don’t plug in anything,” Bruce said. “It’s amazing how quickly demand sneaks up on you. That last two years the expectations have been ‘Everywhere I go I have Wi-Fi.’ The reliance on the network in the daily life of every faculty member, staff and student is almost revolutionary. That has been true for the last four or five years. Now Internet means wireless.”

A challenge the IT department has is that the residence halls are competing with off-campus apartments for students after freshman year. Apartments often offer free Wi-Fi so the university dorms, which already offer free HBO, can’t just tell students to plug their laptops into the wall connection.

“We want to provide an experience that is like an apartment experience,” Bruce said.

Bruce’s team of technicians, electricians and temporarily hired students have installed 500 wireless access points - Bruce calls them “APs” in the shorthand language of IT - in various buildings and classrooms since January. Bruce said the process for installing or expanding wireless access is not nearly as easy as one would think.

Two years ago, the university upgraded Pomfret Hall with eight APs on every floor. This year, the same upgrade project at similarly sized Reid Hall will have 14 APs on every floor.

The easiest part of the process, which takes about two to three months from start to finish with a bank of APs, is the actual installation of the AP box. That part is just having someone climb a ladder, attach a square box to the ceiling and connect the wires.

Before the APs are installed, Bruce uses a software program that shows a diagram of the building’s blueprints so the installation can be optimized. Bruce said generally an AP can handle 30 to 60 wireless users at one time and, depending on things such as wall thickness, covers a few rooms on a dormitory floor.

The hard work, of course, is upgrading the wired access to the AP. The link between a student’s iPad to the AP may be wireless, but everything after that is not, so Bruce’s electricians have to run miles of cable from the AP to the network controller.

The university has three controllers, and one for redundancy, that act as the brains of the outfit, handling the traffic of as many as 1,000 APs, although the UA tries to use one brain for every 500 access points.

“The common misconception is that wireless doesn’t have wires,” Bruce said. “Wireless is not wireless. Only the last mile is wireless. We figured it out that 19 other systems have to function for wireless to function. It’s a big job to make everything work right.”

And costly. Bruce said an individual AP costs approximately $650 - and the university bulk-orders from a vendor because it’s not something you just run down to Best Buy to pick up.

The total costs for the install is more than $1,000 per AP, and it costs even more in the older buildings that don’t have existing technological infrastructure. In older buildings and classrooms, the university has to shoehorn George Jetson technology into Fred Flintstone’s stone-wheeled car.

“We’re trying to have more pervasive wireless in classrooms,” Brewer said. “Our older classrooms are not equipped for that use.”

Bruce estimates that the university’s coverage goals would be met with another 1,400 or so APs at a total cost of about $2 million. Each of the brains costs about $75,000, and standard procedure would imply that another 1,400 APs would require three more brains.

“The constraints are more with money than time,” Brewer said. “Somebody has to come up with the money to buy this stuff.”

Bruce joked that he would name the network after anyone who gave him the $2 million needed to finish the wireless upgrading of the campus.

When there is a problem with the wireless on campus, when one of the 20 or so systems hit a snag that prevents a student from playing Candy Crush or doing research for a paper, the IT department hears about it. Brewer and Bruce said the university has several wired computer labs, including one with 100 computers at the student union, so every student can get access to the Internet if he or she needs it.

But that means tethered access, a retro idea in today’s world.

“It’s just the reality,” Bruce said. “‘Students are used to what they’re used to. The expectation is I have my device, I can get on the Internet.”

The university’s IT crowd is trying to make that a reality, too.

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Information from: Arkansas Business, http://www.arkansasbusiness.com

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