Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., has the best wireless internet access of any college campus in the nation, according to a survey by Intel Corp. The survey also shows an explosion of wireless internet access on college campuses nationwide over the past year alone.

“Last year, it was almost a novelty,” said Bert Sperling, principal author of the survey. “This year, it’s almost expected.”

Thirty-four of the top 50 schools in the survey have 100-percent wireless coverage, up from seven of the top 50 schools last year. According to the survey, the top 50 most “unwired” campuses are, on average, 98 percent covered by a wireless network, up from an average coverage of 64 percent in last year’s survey.

In fact, Sperling said, last year there were frequent instances of campuses with no wireless network deployment, while this year he reports that nearly every school examined had some degree of wireless infrastructure.

Sperling looked at nearly 1,000 colleges across the United States. The top 50 were ranked based on the amount of Wi-Fi coverage their campuses have, how the technology is used, the number of undergraduate students enrolled, and the computer-to-student ratio on campus.

Rounding out the top five were Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo; the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio; Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.; and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

At Ball State, wireless access points–which send and receive signals to personal computers and other devices–began going up in 2002. But most of the campus wasn’t covered until this year.

The school has more than 625 wireless access points spread across about 600 acres. “Students can work on projects wherever they are,” said O’Neal Smitherman, Ball State’s vice president of information technology.

Not only that, but Ball State is one of at least three schools in the survey–the others are Western Michigan University and No. 14 Purdue–where students can watch sporting events broadcast wirelessly across campus networks. This was one of many ways the technology was being used to enhance campus life, the survey found. Here are some others:

  • Professors at Coppin State University in Baltimore (No. 19) and Winona State University in Winona, Minn. (No. 23), use wirelessly enabled tablet PCs to transmit data to LCD projectors from anywhere they roam in the classroom.

  • At Carnegie Mellon and Dartmouth, students can use wireless laptops to check the status of their laundry loads and washing machine availability.

  • Professors are conducting virtual office hours and administering exams online. University operations also are being streamlined through wireless internet access, as schools equip campus security staff, housing services staff, and facility managers with wireless laptops or handheld computers to complete paperwork and submit work orders instantly from the field.

Richard Beckwith, an ethnographer with Intel’s Corporate Technology People and Practices Research Group, said today’s college campuses offer a window into the future of computing.

“The class of 2009 will graduate to a world far more technologically advanced than it is today,” said Beckwith. “Today’s campuses are like a living laboratory, providing a window into how tomorrow’s digital communities will define the way people work, live, learn, and play as wireless infrastructure continues to advance and evolve.”

Sperling agrees.

“Dartmouth has been wireless for a few years. The main computing guy there told me something changed that they hadn’t anticipated. The way people use their computers; they expect to be in touch with everyone all the time,” he said.

Sperling drew a parallel between how American culture assimilated cell phones and how it’s adopting Wi-Fi access.

“I certainly remember the time where cell phones were notoriously unavailable, ineffective, and you never knew when they were going to work,” he said. “These days, they’re everywhere, you have coverage, you put it in your pocket and go.

“Wi-Fi is playing out similarly on campus, showing its effect [on communication].”

Done in conjunction with the Center for Digital Education, the study examined schools with at least 1,000 students. Data were gathered from university interviews, public documents and industry sources, and an online survey that schools completed between May 1 and Sept. 1.

Links:

Intel Corp.
http://www.intel.com

Center for Digital Education
http://www.centerdigitaled.com

2005 “Most Unwired Campus” survey
http://www.intel.com/go/unwiredcampuses