Colleges and universities nationwide are launching the newest generation of Wi-Fi networks even before a final version of the standard has been ratified—a move technology experts say could allow schools to do away with wired networks in the coming years.

While the IEEE, the standard-setting body for networking equipment, is expected to ratify the 802.11n Wi-Fi technology standard within the next year, higher education is getting a jump-start—phasing in the technology this spring and providing faculty and students with a faster, more reliable wireless internet connection. Network administrators at several universities said higher education is embracing 802.11n technology now, because many students own laptops that are compatible with the newest Wi-Fi option. The "n" standard is expected to allow for faster audio and video streaming, including high-definition television. Digital recordings of lectures also could be accessible through "n" networks. 

"What you’ll see very often is educational institutions seem to be at the forefront of adopting new technology," said Dan McCarriar, assistant director of network services at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where two buildings have access to an 802.11n network in a pilot program. McCarriar said the entire campus will have access to the network by the end of the year.

As more students buy computers and phones with "n" capabilities, "universities are very willing to make their networks into living laboratories," said Michael Tennefoss, head of strategic marketing for Aruba Networks, a California-based company that has set up dozens of "n" networks on college campuses, including the one at Carnegie Mellon.

The new Wi-Fi option offers download speeds of 120 to 200 megabits per second—rivaling or trumping the speed of a wired network—compared with 54 megabits per second for most other wireless networks, Tennefoss said.

Colleges and universities "are willing to be on the cutting edge in a way that many enterprises aren’t willing to do. They want to test new technology and see how it performs in their campus environment," Tennefoss said. "And this is a perfect opportunity to deploy the ‘n’ technology."

Theresa Byrd, chief information officer at Ohio Wesleyan University, said officials were hesitant to commit to the "n" technology until they saw students buying laptops with "n" capabilities. 

"We just knew that in the fall, our students would come with ‘n’ laptops," Byrd said. "It just seemed to be the right decision to make at this time, and it seemed to be student-driven."

Once students become accustomed to the increased speed of wireless "n" networks, they will enter the workforce with the same expectations from their employers, which could spur a wireless revolution in small businesses and large corporations across the country, experts said.

"We’ll see kids graduating and getting into the workplace and demanding that same kind of mobility," McCarriar said. "There are some interesting things that could really drive [the deployment of "n" technology]."

As wireless "n" networks become more commonplace, businesses could use 802.11n technology to lure new college graduates who prefer next-generation, high-speed wireless over wired networks.

"If it means attracting the best and brightest graduates, I’m sure businesses could use it as a recruiting tool," she said.

While tech companies and school systems await the IEEE’s approval of 802.11n technology, Tennefoss said the new standard already has gained traction among several IT managers—becoming one of the most preferred wireless options on the market even before receiving final ratification.

"We’re at a stage where it is a de facto standard, if not a de jure standard," he said. "The market has spoken … and has adopted it and embraced it."

Some campuses, such as Indiana University, are bolstering their current wireless networks to pave the way for the "n" technology when it is ratified. The university announced April 22 that it would replace its current wireless hardware and expand network access across the Bloomington campus. The new network will have 3,900 access points after the upgrade this spring, compared with just 1,200 access points currently on campus.

The upgrade will provide a new way for users to access the secure wireless network. Previously, students and faculty used virtual private networking (VPN) technology, but the improvement will use the 802.1x security standard instead, which will allow Indiana to bring "n" technology to its campus next year.

Replacing the university’s wireless setup will provide "a full path to the 802.11n standard," said Brad Wheeler, Indiana University’s vice president for information technology.

"We will expand to cover nearly all of the residence halls; this means coverage in every student room, as well as all common areas," said Matt Davy, the chief network architect at Indiana.

After working with the upgraded wireless system since early this year, Davy said students immediately would reap the benefits of the wider network.

"I’ve been working in our test environment for several months, and I can tell you, once you use [the 802.1x network], you’ll never want to use VPN to connect to wireless again," he said.

In February, Duke University announced it would bring an "n" network to campus, working closely with Cisco, which has deployed "n" technology at colleges nationwide since 2007. Tracy Futhey, chief information officer at Duke, said universities are a sensible testing ground for the newest wireless technology, because—unlike most businesses—campuses look to provide around-the-clock internet access.

"Wireless on our campus is absolutely critical to our 24-7 population. Universities are an ideal testing ground for new technologies, especially wireless uses and devices, because students are spending their entire day on campus in a mobile manner," Futhey said. "They live, learn, work, and play on campus."

Cisco also deployed an "n" network at Concordia University in Montreal, a school known for being at the forefront of technology. Concordia was the first Canadian university to bring campus-wide wireless internet access to students and faculty, and in March, officials said the next step would be the latest in wireless networks. Concordia officials have said the ever-present internet access has served as an invaluable recruiting tool, as students search for campuses that allow more laptop mobility.

"Today’s students have grown up with the internet, and for them, full access is a given," said Andrew McAusland, the associate vice president of instructional and information technology services at Concordia.

Wireless internet connections have become ubiquitous on college campuses over the last decade. But long before students toted laptops to and from lectures and dormitories, Carnegie Mellon University—which reportedly had the first campus-wide wired network—used a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to pilot a wireless internet network in 1994. The rudimentary network only covered three buildings in a small corner of the Carnegie campus, but it signaled a breakthrough in wireless capabilities.

After a series of improvements that added hundreds of access points, the entire campus was wireless by the 2001 academic year, several years ahead of other leading universities.   

Many IT managers at colleges and universities have said the "n" technology will allow campuses to do away with wired networks, which can be cumbersome and expensive to change. At Carnegie Mellon, that won’t be an option. McCarriar said the university’s everyday faculty demands, such as research computing, require the capabilities of a wired network—although more traditional computer use would be well-served by the "n" standard.

"The reality of the situation is that you have to understand what your user base does on a regular basis," he said. "If I suggested getting rid of the wired network, they might hang me. We just couldn’t do that here. But for a K-12 school, it would be perfectly viable."

Tennefoss said the advent of 802.11n would allow most colleges to "do away with" wired networks, which have been unwieldy when IT managers have tried to reconfigure campus-wide networks.

"For places like lecture halls, where it’s simply impractical to run wire everywhere, you can deliver content to every user [wirelessly]," he said. "You can cover new areas you could never cover before."

At Ohio Wesleyan, officials decided to keep the school’s wired infrastructure for databases that might not be supported by a wireless network. Programmers began installing the "n" network last month. The 200-acre, 60-building campus will have full "n" access by August, when students return for the fall semester. The campus currently has only a handful of buildings with wireless access, Byrd said.

Byrd said allowing students to access the internet wirelessly in their dorms, athletic fields, classrooms, and dining halls would make the wired option obsolete for a majority of the campus population. 

"If ‘n’ is as fast as it’s supposed to be, it would not surprise me at all if students are not using the wired network nearly as much next year. … They’ll be able to work wherever they are, and they won’t be tethered to their desktop like they normally would," Byrd said. "If I could have waved the magic wand, we would have had this a long time ago."

Aruba Networks

Cisco