As wireless technology has become a ubiquitous tool of modern life, more education administrators are recognizing the need to develop a reliable wireless campus environment. Wireless technology can help schools bolster public safety, maintain campus revenue opportunities, improve student and faculty recruitment, and provide technology leadership.
Academic institutions must provide for public safety through the reliable transmission of 911 emergency calls. Today, one-third of all nationwide 911 calls — 170,000 calls per day — are placed from wireless phones. Yet many calls are dropped, and the Federal Communications Commission is developing new standards to improve reliability. Administrators need to consider the safety and liability implications for their institutions.
More than two-thirds of students are toting cell phones, and many academic institutions have seen revenues from residence-hall landline service contracts decline. Schools need to develop new wireless business revenue to recoup these losses. For example, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Business Journal, San Diego State University reported a 40 percent drop in revenue from students' long-distance calls, resulting in a loss of more than $80,000.
In order to remain competitive, education institutions must provide faculty and students with effective, secure campuswide wireless voice and data service. Moreover, go-anywhere access to telecommunications and data has become an important recruitment tool. This fact was highlighted in a recent Association of College and University Technology Administrators survey; students said cell phone service is the No. 1 “in thing” on campus.
Moreover, a reliable wireless environment is vital for a university trying to maintain a reputation for leadership in technology among prospective and current students, faculty and alumni. One university president was embarrassed recently when a valued donor expressed frustration at experiencing dropped wireless business calls while visiting campus.
High stakes, high returns
Given the high stakes, education institutions must take a comprehensive approach to developing a campuswide wireless voice and data communications system. Ideally, it should be part of the overall campus master plan.
Carriers are increasingly eager to place antennas on or adjacent to campuses, so an institution must be prepared to manage the development and growth of this important resource to meet the needs of campus stakeholders in a myriad of areas and departments. A proactive, comprehensive approach will ensure adequate coverage, capacity and security to meet current and future needs; control the number, locations and aesthetics of antennas; and negotiate fair leasing and service agreements. It also is critical to minimize revenue loss because of antenna placement adjacent to, but not actually on, institution-owned or -controlled property.
The ideal environment
The ideal wireless campus environment provides seamless coverage and reliable capacity for current and future technologies, maintains campus aesthetics through co-location and effective design and screening of antenna sites, and protects ongoing significant revenue stream opportunities.
A wireless system should provide seamless coverage for voice and data, as well as newer technologies — text transmission, graphics, streaming video — for various wireless devices, whether they are cell phones, PDAs or laptops. Accommodating these data requires more bandwidth, and therefore, more antennas.
Yet a campus can't rely solely on existing commercial antennas on the perimeter of the campus to ensure adequate campuswide coverage. The typical campus environment, dense with heavy masonry construction and trees, often blocks radio signals. Campuses also need reliable increased capacity at peak usage times — in the evening, between classes, or at athletic events, graduation ceremonies and homecomings. In-building system enhancements, in which carriers run fiber through the risers to transmission points on each floor to enhance reception, often are important to reinforce the radio signals and ensure that cell phones work inside the building as well as outside.
A school also must be prepared to accommodate newer technologies, including third-generation (3G), fully digital, high-bandwidth wireless technology. This technology is capable of supporting high-speed Internet access; video and other high-end applications; and high-bandwidth Wi-Fi, wireless fidelity systems with 54-meg bandwidth capacity.
The administration also needs to protect campus aesthetics through effective planning and negotiation. It is important that the campus planning team manage the details of the design, contractor selection and construction. The fact is, antennas often are highly visible and can be unattractive, and the fewer sites necessary to ensure coverage and capacity, the better.
At one campus, five carriers responded to an RFP-performed radio-frequency analysis of the campus, which showed the campus planning team where signals were strong or weak. The carriers initially wanted to place new antenna sites on 30 buildings. The planning team used the RF analysis to identify opportunities to co-locate, and was able to reduce the number of antenna sites to six buildings. Where campus aesthetics are critical, carriers' offers to camouflage antennas by painting them to match the building often prove to be inadequate. It is a good idea for campus planners to require photosimulation of the installation and examine various alternatives prior to approving installation.
Planning is key
Effective contract negotiations with carriers are essential for an institution to see significant revenue from wireless operations and adequate protection from financial liability. The planning starts with a comprehensive analysis of how wireless fits with campus facilities plans and the school's budgetary projections. Among other issues, planners must look at projected revenue losses from landline service declines, anticipated wireless revenues, and the pros and cons of entering into an exclusive agreement with a single carrier vs. overlapping coverage from multiple carriers to satisfy faculty, students, staff and alumni who have individual wireless service.
Significant liability issues exist: for example, carriers will expect the school to support on-campus antenna sites and in-building enhancements. In the event of a power failure, the institution may be liable to the carrier for lost revenue.
Along with these liability issues, substantial revenue opportunities exist. At one institution, for example, a single department negotiated placement of a tower on its facility in return for 12 cell phones; another negotiated a six-figure annual leasing agreement for some 30 well-placed antenna sites on three different campuses. Only after effective planning is the campus ready to proceed with obtaining uninterrupted wireless coverage.
Kinzler is senior vice president of technology, and Burkhardt is vice president of OnlinEnvironments of Syska Hennessy Group, Inc., New York City, which offers a comprehensive planning and development service for wireless communications.
Step by step
Steps toward a wireless campus:
Identify campus strategies and stakeholders.
Understand different interests of stakeholders to create a consensus.
Coordinate and analyze on-campus RF testing.
Strategize how 3G technology would affect antenna locations.
Reconcile desired location(s) of carriers with campus preferences.
Negotiate lease terms and conditions with carriers.
Oversee design, contractors and construction.
Upgrade infrastructures to accommodate co-located carrier sites.