McGill chooses WiFi to power student network

A partnership between Colubris Networks and McGill University, aims to reduce the time students wait in line to access the Internet.

Laval, Que.-based Colubris Networks Inc. announced Monday that it was been chosen by Montreal’s

McGill University to build out a campus wide wireless LAN. The WiFi technology supplied by Colubris already provides McGill’s 30,000 students with access through approximately 175 access points, says Colubris president and CEO Barry Fougere. When the project is completed, within the next 12 months, the university’s hot spot count will be at 1,000.

The idea to build up a wireless network came from the students themselves, says McGill’s director of network and communication services Gary Bernstein. In discussions about a planned commons area, a single space where students can study, relax and access university administration, student representatives inquired about the possibility of including Internet access. And if at all possible, they asked for access they wouldn’t have to wait in line for. WiFi seemed like the perfect fit for a student population increasingly dependent on their laptops, Bernstein says.

Colubris was chosen for the job in part because of its ability to address the university’s unique security concerns. Bernstein says that the public nature of universities makes them particularly vulnerable to unauthorized users accessing the network.

“”It’s very different from an enterprise. I can’t just walk into your office uninvited, but you’re allowed to walk into my library uninvited,”” Bernstein says.

Wireless networks are particularly vulnerable, he says, because the signals can easily get sniffed. The Colubris solution gets around that problem by using VPN tunneling and the robust encryption it allows. There is an extra layer of security added on by user authentication. But rather than burdening students with more user names and passwords to remember and possibly forget, the Colubris solution allows the university to use their current student id system on the network.

“”What we’re able to do is integrate the Colubris solution directly into our back end authentication engine. So that if you’re a student who would normally use some credentials to access your student information now you use those same credentials to access the wireless network,”” Bernstein says.

Making sure that only students and university employees can access the network is also key because in all public spaces, such as McGill’s 14 libraries, the service is free.

Universities are one of the earliest and largest adopters of WiFi to date, Fougere says. Deployment makes sense for them not only because of large and highly mobile populations, but also because of the campuses themselves.

“”A lot of these are historic universities, historic buildings. There are issues with pulling ethernet cables and things like that to create a dense broadband wire line environment,”” he says.

McGill is also in a unique situation, Bernstein points out, because not only are McGill’s buildings historic sites, but there’s a huge number of them.

“”There are some companies that have campuses, but there are not many companies that are spread out over a 120 buildings as we are,”” he says.

When the project is concluded, the one thousand access points will essentially allow McGill’s students access to the internet no matter which one of the 120 buildings they’re in. Unless of course they happen to be in a classroom.

Access in the classroom is still being debated, Bernstein says. Administration and faculty are weary of allowing students free use of laptops while listening to a lecture, no matter what the theoretical benefits may be. While open to the idea of using internet access in the classroom if it can be shown to benefit them and faculty, McGill is choosing to err on the side of caution, taking into account reports from other universities who found students were emailing or surfing the web in class instead of listening.

“”Some of our lecture theaters can fit 250 students,”” Bernstein says, “”can you imagine having to listen to all those pings?””


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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