The University of Winnipeg is building a wireless network designed to cover the downtown area and two other educational institutions.

University officials say the network is capable of meeting the yet-to-be-ratified Wi-Max specification.

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university set up its first base station this week and plans to make the network accessible to 1,000 students before September, said Mike Langedock, the executive director of the University of Winnipeg’s technology solutions centre.

During a Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association conference Wednesday — dubbed Wireless to the Max – Langedock told an audience of about 75 the University of Winnipeg has not traditionally been an early adopter of wireless and Internet technologies, but decided to use the emerging Wi-Max protocol as the basis for a network that would allow students to get help with homework and access library resources.

It will also provide access to two nearby institutions, Red River College and Aboriginal Peoples’ College.

Wi-Max, the common name for the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE)’s 802.16 series of standards, is designed to provide wireless connectivity at speeds of up to 70 Megabits per second (Mbps) at distances of up to 30 km in both licenced and unlicenced radio-frequency bands. By contrast, the IEEE 802.11 standards – commonly known as Wi-Fi – have a range of only 100 metres and speeds of up to 54 Mbps.

The University of Winnipeg wanted to give students access to university information both on and off-campus, particularly if they are doing field projects in the downtown area using notebook PCs.

“We didn’t come into this saying, “Ooh, Wi-Max. Really cool. What can we do with this?’” Langedock said.  “It’s not about technology for the sake of technology. Wi-Max became the solution to our business problem.”

He added one of the major advantages of Wi-Max is its ability to transmit through buildings, trees and other objects, without requiring direct line of sight.

University of Winnipeg officials hope to finish the project, known as the Learning Computer and Information Technology Infrastructure (Learning CITI) by March of next year. To date, the school has applied to Industry Canada for a licence to broadcast in the 3.5 GHz spectrum, installed Cisco 1841 series routers and bought AN-100U base stations, manufactured by Markham, Ont.-based Redline Communications Inc.

Redline’s director of product management, Mario Pidutti, said Wi-Max will not necessarily replace technologies like third-generation (3G) cellular or Wi-Fi.

“No single technology solves everything,” he said, describing wireless standards such as Wi-Max, Wi-Fi, 3G, Bluetooth and radio-frequency identification.

Doug Cooper, Intel Corp.’s country manager for Canada, agreed.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Cooper said. “While the world is rapidly going wireless, there will be multiple solutions.”

Because of its longer range, Wi-Max could be used to connect various Wi-Fi networks, Cooper said, adding most wireless service providers would prefer to use Wi-Max for data services and their existing cellular networks for voice.

“We have some early indication from pilots that this is likely the way things will go.”

Intel, whose Centrino processor is designed to let notebook users access Wi-Fi networks, is working on software that would allow portable computers that would roam from Wi-Fi to Wi-Max networks, allowing users stay connected while the machine disconnects from one base station and connects to the other.

Wi-Max is also used by some developing countries to provide Internet access where no other high-speed access services exist, Pidutti said.

“It’s ideal for bringing cable and DSL-like service to areas where the infrastructure just isn’t in place,” he said. “We see residential and (small and home offices) coming on in a big way, once (customer premise equipment prices) get competitive with cable and DSL.”

Many Canadian communities still have no access to high-speed Internet access, and Wi-Max could help “fill the gaps” in coverage, said Lawrence Surtees, director of telecom and Internet research at IDC Canada.

During his closing remarks at Wireless to the Max, Surtees said cable providers like Rogers and Cogeco are among the companies that could potentially use Wi-Max to offer high-speed service and give them a competitive edge over the incumbent telecommunications carriers.

“Wireline providers need to be scared – very scared,” Surtees said.

But incumbent carrier Manitoba Telecom Services is one of the University of Winnipeg’s vendor partners, Langedock said.

“Initially, we thought we were going to get some apprehension or resistance from the telcos,” he said.

The University of Winnipeg intends to let local residents access to the Learning CITI network, Langedock said, adding the “humanitarian” component is important to the university’s president, Lloyd Axworthy, a former federal cabinet minister who was instrumental in a variety of peace projects, including international treaties on child soldiers and anti-personnel mines.

“What we’re doing in the Learning CITI has a socio-economic bent to it,” Langedock said. “Our neighbourhood is not the friendliest. We are downtown, there is a lot of low-income (housing). We have a lot of people downtown who can barely afford a phone.”

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