Administrators at the University of Texas at Dallas are drafting a new plan to combat widespread interference across the school’s wireless network after complaints that their original proposal–which prohibited students and others from setting up certain types of private “hot spots” in campus dormitories–ran afoul of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations.

The controversy erupted earlier this month after university officials issued a policy forbidding students from setting up certain kinds of wireless, or Wi-Fi, networks in campus housing units. Administrators said the rogue “hot spots” were interfering with the university’s own wireless network, which is offered at no charge to students and faculty.

But several students and other on-campus residents objected to the order, pointing to a July 24 federal notice that holds the FCC responsible for resolving disputes related to wireless interference–not university technology staff.

Specifically, the notice stated that the FCC has “exclusive authority to resolve matters involving radio frequency interference when unlicensed devices are being used, regardless of venue.”

Having reviewed the rules, the university later reversed its policy. “It simply wasn’t worth pursuing,” said Bill Hargrove, executive director of information services at UT Dallas, who added that administrators weren’t interested in stepping on any toes over at the FCC. “My main concern is to ensure that students who want access [to the university network] have it,” he said.

As wireless networks become a more customary campus feature, Hargrove warned, administrators at other schools likely will run up against similar problems. “Everybody in the country who puts up a wireless network eventually has to deal with this,” he said.

Though a number of schools nationwide have begun implementing policies that prohibit the use of unauthorized “hot spots” in campus dormitories, Hargrove said schools like UT Dallas are still struggling to define where the institution’s jurisdiction ends and students’ rights as consumers begin.

Legally, he said, student housing falls into a “gray area.” In some cases, he said, faculty live in the apartment-style units, as do family members of some of the students. Even though the housing is university-owned, many of the tenants living in these buildings are not enrolled in the school and therefore are not subject to the sanctions and rules put in place by university administrators with regard to student access.

Instead of enforcing a policy that was in danger of contradicting FCC policy, Hargrove said, officials decided to “err on the side of caution.”

Under the original plan, students and faculty members living in on-campus dormitories, including suite and apartment-style dwellings owned by the university, were prohibited from installing so-called wireless “hot spots” using the popular 802.11b and backwards-compatible 802.11g standard–though they were permitted to use the 802.11a standard, a faster, more expensive version which uses a different portion of the wireless spectrum.

Hargrove said the policy was put in place after a number of students complained of interference resulting from rogue wireless access points set up in dorm rooms and apartments across campus.

Unlike hardwired networks, he said, most wireless networks default to the strongest available signal–which means that if a student has a private network set up in his or her dorm room, for instance, then a neighbor logged onto the university’s network runs the risk of having his or her transmission diverted to the wrong access point–a consequence that could inadvertently boot the user off the system.

Although the university offers free wireless access to students living and studying on campus, Hargrove said, some students have opted to install their own wireless hot spots for additional speed.

Unlike a university-wide network, which must support thousands of users at a time, a personal wireless network or DSL (digital subscriber line) connection is not subject to the sluggishness associated with heavy user traffic, Hargrove said. For many students, the added horsepower is worth the nominal monthly fee, especially if the cost of the service can be divvied up between roommates.

But, besides causing signal interference, these rogue access points also pose a security threat. Though he didn’t want to discuss their tactics in great detail, Hargrove said some of the more nefarious hackers have used these rogue access points to trick unsuspecting web surfers into providing them with confidential information, including credit card numbers and home addresses.

If a user is mistakenly directed to the wrong access point because of signal interference, he said, all a hacker must do is set up an official-looking log-in page that asks the user to provide personal information. If the user isn’t savvy enough to recognize the deception, he said, there’s no telling what some people will do with that information.

Because the portion of the spectrum that plays host to these types of wireless services is unregulated, Hargrove said, there is very little schools can do to ensure their networks don’t get tangled up in other peoples’ signals.

Administrators at UT Dallas hope eventually to mitigate the problem through the use of stronger network authentication protocols. One potential solution is to move the university’s network to the 802.11x security standard, which requires more stringent user authentication–and might prevent errant signals from drifting to the wrong access points, Hargrove said.

But if the problems persist and university technology staff are unable to find a solution, Hargrove said, campus officials would insert language into university housing agreements prohibiting on-campus residents from continuing to use personal wireless networks that repeatedly block access to the school’s service.

“If, despite our best efforts, we continue to have interference problems, we probably will have to come up with another plan,” he said. “The best way to deal with this is probably through terms in the lease agreement [that students sign with the university].”

Links:

University of Texas at Dallas
http://www.utdallas.edu

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov