Flagstaff Campus Wireless Network to be Upgraded

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The Flagstaff Campus wireless network was originally installed in 2007. Since that time new wireless technologies have been developed, and the usage of NAU wireless networks has increased dramatically. The existing Wi-Fi network is showing its age and it's time for a change.

In 2007 our Wi-Fi network was originally designed to just serve laptops. But in the tech world, lifetimes are counted in months and the globe now teems with many more types of wireless devices.  Cell phones, game consoles, printers, iPads and other wireless devices are now commonplace. In addition to more Wi-Fi devices needing service, there are many other devices (non-Wi-Fi) that share the radio frequencies used by the Wi-Fi network and compete for speed or bandwidth.  Many wireless phones, headsets, blue tooth devices, game console controllers, and even video cameras use the same 2.4 Ghz frequencies used by our Wi-Fi network. Microwave ovens, when in use, generate a significant amount of interference in those bands. The end result is that the network is slowed down by these interferences and at times, in some places, the network becomes unusable.

Areas with a high density of Wi-Fi devices or combination of Wi-Fi and non-Wi-Fi wireless devices experience the most trouble. The residence halls and common areas like the Cline Library have more issues because they have the largest concentration of devices and the widest range of types of devices. Students in residence halls bring many consumer devices like game consoles and wireless printers. These devices were designed to be used in a home environment where a single game console must compete with only a few other devices like a single wireless router, a cordless phone, and so on. Patrons to the library carry with them many Wi-Fi capable devices, like mobile phones, laptops and iPads.

Another reason that areas with a high density of devices have more problems is that Wi-Fi speed or bandwidth is shared between all devices in a geographic area. The vast majority of wired network ports on campus are 100Mb/s (megabits per second or 1 million bits per second). Residence halls are 10Mb/s which is in the range of many home broadband network providers. This speed is dedicated to the one device connected to the network port. Our Wi-Fi network has a maximum theoretical speed of 54 Mb/second. Actual usable speed after network overhead and other issues is about 30 Mb/second. But this 30 Mb/second is shared between all Wi-Fi devices in the area. Therefore if 10 laptops are in a room they each get 3 Mb/second on average. In some residence halls we have 100 Wi-Fi devices all in one area. Combine the shared bandwidth/speed with the interference mentioned above and the Wi-Fi network will be slow.

The solution is to upgrade to a newer wireless technology. The newer technology uses a network standard called “802.11n.” 802.11n provides two major features that will improve our Wi-Fi network. First, the speed of the network is three to six times faster than our current wireless. The theoretical maximum speed of 802.11n is 150 Mb/second but many devices can use two radio channels at once which will double the speed to 300 Mb/second. The speed is still shared but there is more total speed available to be shared among the same number of devices so each device will get a faster average speed. The second major improvement provided by 802.11n is that it can use a different radio band. In addition to the 2.4 Ghz band we currently use, 802.11n can use the 5 Ghz band which has much less interference so it won’t be slowed down as much by other devices.

The latest generation of wireless equipment offers other features that will help our network like the ability to direct devices to the least crowded or fastest wireless network. Many wireless vendors now provide some sort of interference detection and avoidance. Most vendors also provide much better diagnostics and troubleshooting than our current system.

With the intention of replacing our current wireless system, ITS has issued an RFP for a new wireless system. Responses to the RFP are due by mid-February and a selection will be made soon after. We hope to start the upgrade this summer.  Prioritization of buildings to be upgraded will be based on the amount of usage and number of issues we are experiencing in a building. This means that residence halls and shared areas like the Cline Library will be upgraded first. The amount of time needed to upgrade will be dependent on the cost of the new system, available funding, and timing of when each building can tolerate a network outage while it is upgraded. It is likely that upgrading the entire campus will take one to two years.

Spring 2012
2/4/2012 1:03:11 PM