Concordia “first Canadian university” to adopt 802.11n wireless networking standard

Early adopters of faster Wi-Fiover 802.11n technology are popping up here and there, but Concordia University in Montreal is the kind of place where the IT shop feels it has to jump on the bandwagon early to satisfy student demand.

“Everybody here tries the new stuff. We have always jumped off the diving board. We just have that attitude, and if we have to apologize for a mistake, we do it later,” said Andrew McAusland, associate vice president of instructional and IT services at the 40,000-student university.

Concordia believes it is the first university in Canada to run 802.11n on a campus, McAusland said. Twenty-two access points supporting the faster technology have been installed since December, out of potentially 200 that will be placed at a cost of up to $500,000, he said.

While 802.11n is still in its Draft 2 state before the IEEE, it has Wi-Fi Forum certification for interoperability, which is enough to satisfy McAusland. He admitted he has to scramble to keep up with the demands of an endless stream of young users.

“You have to be flexible in a university where you don’t have the benefit of aging your technology with the client base,” he said. “Here, they’re always young and have behaviors that have to be reflected in your business model.”

Concordia is deploying Cisco Systems Inc.’s 802.11n Aironet 1250 Series access points, which were first announced last year. The 802.11n access points will supplement 802.11g access points, which in some areas were flooded with as many as 3,000 simultaneous users. “The problem is solved with 802.11n, because there is more bandwidth and it’s backward-compatible, so I get more consistent service where students are congregating,” he said.

Theoretically, 802.11n access points can be placed twice as far apart while offering four times the bandwidth of prior Wi-Fi modes, but McAusland said it is too early to have conducted long-term measurements. “It’s working well, and students say they have experienced no lags,” he said.

Voice over Wi-Fi is also supported and has been working well, providing consistent voice quality, he added. “When running video and animations, the speed difference is incredibly noticeable,” he added.

Voice over Wi-Fi will help the university as it tries to become a full Internet service provider of sorts, he said. Students are now charged $18 a month to receive a phone number that allows them unlimited calls over the IP and wireless network. University workers will be equipped with dual-mode cell phones and Wi-Fi-enabled phones to cut down on telephony costs, he said.

While McAusland said his attitude toward new technology, including 802.11n, might sound adventurous, he noted that the current step is simply evolutionary. The university realizes it must ensure its basic objective of having highly reliable network service, and “if that isn’t there, you hear about it,” he said.

Paul Debeasi, an analyst at Burton Group, said he had heard of Concordia’s project and he called it an “aggressive … and relatively big project.”

Cisco is touting the university is a leader in 802.11n deployments, Debeasi said. A Cisco spokeswoman said Duke University in Durham, N.C., and Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, S.D., are also deploying 802.11n technology.

Several vendors have announced 802.11n products, and Debeasi said 2008 “is really the first full year that 802.11n is making it into the enterprise.” One of the last to announce products, Siemens Networks Inc., has become one of the first to ship them. Other vendors include Aruba Networks Inc., Meru Networks Inc. and Trapeze Networks Inc., he said.

Debeasi said organizations that are hesitant about deploying the Draft 2 version of 802.11n should not be concerned, because the Wi-Fi Forum has certified the technology to be interoperable. An approved specification from the IEEE is not due until 2009 and will only include “subtle” changes, he predicted.

A reason to consider a transition to 802.11n is that laptop vendors will begin deploying 802.11n-ready machines in the summer, which means it will be “very difficult to find a non-n laptop by next January,” Debeasi said.

While those laptops will still be backward-compatible with 802.11a/b/g, the laptop support of 802.11n will mean that users will have greater expectations for faster speeds to run richer applications like wireless video and voice, he said.

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