Sunday, November 13, 2011

Wireless Networking Challenges

There has been a convergence of talk about the challenges of wireless.  The scatter-points are:
  • Growing, feeding and managing wireless networks on our campuses, as discussed at the October Educause conference.
  • Some additional chatter at the ACM SIGUCCS conference, which is just starting in San Diego.  The focus here is on service provision.
  • CIO discussion on the Educause constituent group list about supporting drop-in and walk-thru wireless access by non-identified community visitors.  Many campuses feel they cannot support casual drop-in use by unknown campus visitors due to cost and regulatory requirements, while other campuses feel that to not provide such access means to be left behind in the market.
  • Lowell McAdam, chief executive of Verizon Communications, wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York times describing the need to reallocate wireless spectrum to meet telecom wireless capacity demands:
  • Joe Sharkey writing in the New York Times about the problems with hotel ISP iBahn keeping up with demand generated by iPads and iPhones:
  • Gartner predicts the number of iPads sold to reach 100 million by 2012.
  • Network Neutrality is generating more political talk.  What if tiered-pricing models become the norm?  We see this type of pricing growing in hotels.

Challenge:  How do we grow and maintain the campus wireless network in a way that meets the service expectations of students, faculty and staff, and meets the objectives for mobility?  As devices proliferate, and service expectations grow, we expect demand for wireless network access to grow.  If we continue to grow mobile services, we need to plan network accessibility accordingly. 

A short summary of the issues:
There are two types of wireless in use:  cellular data plans (3G / 4G service) and wi-fi, such as what we provide on campus and what hotels and conferences provide when we travel.
Will we continue to use both on our campuses?  Or do we move to BYON?
There is enormous wireless growth due to iPads, iPhones, video and the proliferation of devices an individual carries.
Devices and services are using more bandwidth. Voice and video are big bandwidth consumers.
Cellular providers are having difficulty meeting growth due to lack of wireless spectrum.
Local wi-fi providers are having to expand access points, increasing costs.
Events, such as conferences, come with pervasive wireless coverage expectation.
The wireless technology itself is limited by current technology capabilities and physics.

We need to be aware:
When our community complains about "slow wireless" or "no wireless available" or "need more for a conference", that translates into costs.  The only response is to increase wireless access point density by adding more access points. 
If we are going to deliver services and educational content via wireless, can we expect our students to receive the content?  What if content delivery moves to a tiered-pricing model?
Access points have a life of about 3-5 years, so this is an ongoing budget renewal item.
More access points means greater aggregation at wired points, translating to purchasing bigger and more costly building network electronics and a more costly infrastructure.  For many campuses, this also means purchasing more bandwidth capacity.
If costs are increasing, as the CIO, I feel the need to restrict the service to those who pay for it, and not give it away to guests and visitors.
All of this translates to a growing network budget.  This ultimately contributes to the higher cost of education.