New network offers city-wide “virtual desktop” access to Concordia students

In a first of its kind project for a Canadian academic institute, students at Montreal’s Concordia University will soon be able to connect to an outdoor wireless mesh network that combines phone and data storage.

The network supports a “virtual desktop” offering for off-campus students.

Introduced in September, use of the wireless mesh network is currently free. But a fee of $8.99 will be charged in the new year, which will also include access to a range software applications, including Microsoft Office.

Concordia is also the first Canadian university to install Cisco’s 802.11n wireless network on campus.  University officials say the new WiFi frequency provides a faster, more reliable connection than was previously available.

Through its new intergrated Internet package, the university seeks to become an Internet Service Provider (ISP), offering students low-cost Internet access, a neccessary tool for academic success.

“You have to keep up with a constantly changing client base,” said Andrew McAusland, associate vice-president of instructional and information technology services at Concordia University. 

The network currently extends along a one square kilometer radius around each campus and also includes clusters of connectivity in heavily-populated student neighbourhoods in downtown Montreal.

“We will begin to build out the network in specific areas of the city based on student housing,” McAusland said.

He said a key goal of the network is to offer all 40,000 students at Concordia equal access to Internet technology and “provide a low-cost and high-speed service.”

Deploying the wireless network was the collaborative venture involving the university, Bell Enterprises and Cisco Systems.

After getting input from students and collecting student postal codes, fixed antennas were placed on select buildings in the city, says Michel Poisson, an account consultant with Bell.

The outdoor mesh – consisting of a “spider web” of access points spread out in clusters across the city – does not require cables. 

Poisson said the access points have been created on sides of buildings as well as on lamp posts – any place that has access to power. 

This allows students to move from the classroom to the lunch venue and have a continuous Internet session.

The Bell consultant suggested that when it comes to connectivity, student expecations are pretty high. They all have cell phones, PDAs and laptops “so connectivity is a must for them.”

Once the physical infrastructure was installed, the university introduced cloud computing to centralize storage, and enable documents and expensive software to be shared.

This frees students from the need to invest in costly applications, including operating system software, according to Sean Durand, a Concordia University student.   

“It offers everything you need to do all of your reports, and assignments. It’s cheaper, it’s all there, and it’s legal.”

At least one expert believes there are many advantages to providing this kind of service.

“It’s no longer typical for university students to be on campus all the time, especially in a big city,” notes Aileen Arcilla, senior research analyst, semi-conductors at Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC. “Now students can study wherever they want without restraint.”

The wireless mesh will also help solidify the partnership between the city and the university, Arcilla said.

“There will be closer collaboration on research between government and the community and everything will move at a faster pace. The long term effect will be fresh ideas and a greater opportunity for students to contribute to the community.”

While so far such an initiative has not been seen anywhere else in Canada, Arcilla said the improved technology is bound to be adopted elsewhere.

The next step at Concordia is for Bell to expand its footprint and introduce concurrent voice sessions over mobile phones.

Not only will they play the role of an ISP, but also a voice service provider to assist in pushing content out to students via SMS, said Poisson.

The university already sends important text messages to students on campus security or other issues, but the wireless network is expected to expand this capability.    

Bell and Cisco hope to bring this technology to other universities, but Poisson says they may simply not be ready for the technology yet.

He said, unlike other universities, Concordia already had the basic elements in place. Once you have those “you can begin adding elements such as the wireless mesh.”  

Concordia was also the first in university in Canada to deploy a wireless local area network in 2001, and the first to introduce a voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system.

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