Keeping students connected

Cross-campus wireless coverage will go a long way in helping to provide a first class education, says John Spindler

Smartphone and tablet technology has changed the landscape of today’s learning environment.  Indeed, students expect to have the world at their fingertips and want instant access to wireless services at all times, wherever they are on campus. Universities are under increased pressure to attract the brightest students through the provision of a first class education. Cross-campus wireless coverage ensures immediate access to ultramodern facilities using the latest technologies, cementing a university’s technology credentials and academic reputation. Universities failing to offer this will not only disadvantage the university itself, but the students and staff.  As such, universities must make sure that they can provide their students and staff with a consistent mobile experience, but this can often be a challenge.

Wireless challenges on campus

Campuses come in many different shapes and sizes, and have been built using numerous specialist construction materials, but this can often cause a number of issues.  Indeed, the university building structure can make it extremely difficult to provide ubiquitous in-building wireless services; for example, 4G LTE signal, operating at high frequencies such as 2.6 GHz, simply does not penetrate building walls as well as 2G or 3G services.  As such, students will be left with areas that have reduced data rates or even complete loss of signal, which could be significantly disruptive to the learning of students in libraries, lecture theatres and tutorial rooms.  What’s more, in a university building with multiple floors there will likely be several adjacent cell sites providing signal to the building.  Therefore, students and staff mobile phones will likely jump from one mobile cell site to another, which can significantly degrade mobile service and drain battery life from the device. To overcome this, there must be a sufficiently strong signal source inside the building that is able to deliver adequate mobile coverage while ensuring mobile devices stay ‘locked on’ to the signal.

The university building structure can make it extremely difficult to provide ubiquitous in-building wireless services

There’s also the issue of providing enough capacity on university campuses.  For example, in high user density areas such as student unions, mobile capacity can become extremely limited.  This is not least because the signal is concentrating on serving the peak crowd of users who are all contacting their new friends or accessing the internet from their mobile device.  These temporary demands on the network can significantly impair mobile service performance and availability.  Therefore, universities should consider wireless technology that is able to be sectorised and deliver the necessary capacity to each area on the campus.  Sectorisation is actually a long-standing method of expanding wireless network capacity and dates back to macro cells around 20 years ago – it is often used in stadiums or public venues to expand capacity. 

University health and safety

Universities are required to optimise wireless coverage throughout their campuses, not just to keep students connected, but for health and safety purposes too.  At university, students are not only there to learn, but they often live on the campus itself in a halls of residence.  As such, it’s important there is a robust network in all departments – including in the students’ union, lecture theatres and tutorial rooms, as well as in the halls of residence – that supports the multiple types of frequency bands used by the fire, police and ambulance services. Poor signal or wireless black spots could, ultimately, lead to dangerous lapses in the communication systems and put student safety at risk.  It’s of the upmost importance that universities promote a safe and secure environment for both students and staff.   

Enhancing campus connectivity

In order to overcome the challenges associated with wireless coverage in universities, as well as provide a strong and reliable mobile signal for critical communications, campus managers should optimise the network infrastructures with technology such as a fibre-based, wideband active distributed antenna system (DAS).  A wideband DAS is an install-once wireless signal distribution system consisting of small antennas which can fit unobtrusively inside university building ceilings, meaning that there is little disturbance to the university building itself. It also brings the signal closer to the users and allows specific services to be easily routed around the campus to areas where they are needed the most, such as high-capacity areas like the students’ union.  4G hotspots can also be created in pre-designated communal areas, such as the university canteen.

An ‘evergreen’ campus

Ultimately, wideband active DAS technology will allow universities to benefit from a fast, efficient and cost-effective wireless deployment, with minimal disruption to infrastructure, learning, staff and students.  A truly wideband DAS is considered to be ‘evergreen,’ which means it can easily accommodate the addition of new frequencies and services without the addition of new hardware or cabling.  This will be critical to the future of the education sector as new wireless technologies emerge to enhance the learning of students across the country.

John Spindler is VP of marketing and product management at Zinwave


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