It wasn't the lure of new technology that persuaded Montreal's Concordia University to adopt 802.11n, but the simple fact that the existing network, put in four years ago, couldn't cope with a rapidly expanding user base.
"Wireless networking is a baseline service you have to provide in education," says Andrew McAusland, associate vice president of instructional and information technology services at the university. "We've experienced a 200 percent growth in the use of wireless every semester since we put it in."
The university has a pretty-much all-Cisco network, and set up a couple of hundred managed "fat" Aironet Wi-Fi access points (APs), which use the 802.11g standard to cover the campus indoors and out, and serve up to 40,000 students. It built that wireless LAN in 2001, and adopted voice over IP in 2003.
Now the Wi-Fi network is well loaded, and the demand pattern was such that it wasn't enough to add new APs. "We have 90-95 percent coverage of the campus," says McAusland. "We've covered all the floor space. But students don't disperse to all of the floor space. They congregate."
Sixty percent of the WLAN traffic comes from eight to ten locations, he says: "With 802.11g, if we put in more and more APs, they would have conflicted with each other. With 802.11n, we have to put in more APs but we get more simultaneous connectivity."
802.11n didn't need a network change
So Concordia is putting in Cisco's Aironet 1250 access points. The integrator, Bell Canada has carried out a new radio survey and so far installed 24 new APs, which replace some of the older ones, in popular indoor locations. "802.11n hasn't caused us to change our network in any huge way," he says. "The old access points will continue in use, but we will upgrade across the board. In at the most 24 months, 80 percent of the wireless network will be converted to 802.11n."
The university is running 802.11n in both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, to support a rapidly-growing number of 802.11n laptops, says McAusland. "With our client base, we don't have the luxury of ageing with the client base, like an enterprise can. Every year, we get new students in, with new equipment. More and more of our users have 802.11n, so we have to have a network that will accommodate it."
Students have experienced no difficulties in getting onto the new access points, which provide improved service whether they have 802.11n laptops or older 802.11g ones, says McAusland. He hasn't run up against the problem of powering the access points, he says, as most are powered from wall sockets, not over Ethernet: "Ninety percent are plugged in."
The value is in the services, not the network
The university acts as an ISP and a telco to its students and staff, offering Internet connectivity including use of Microsoft Office and storage for $8.99 a month, and a flat rate telecoms package for $17 a month which is a boon to foreign students. "It's not about the core network, it's about the services you provide on it," says McAusland. "The wireless mesh is of no value in itself; its value comes in the services you provide."
Fixed-mobile convergence is coming, he says, and students with Wi-Fi cellphones can already make calls directly over the Wi-Fi, saving on their mobile minutes, but it's not yet easy.
"There's a complete lack of standards, and no drive on the part of the cellphone companies to provide them," he says, with obvious irony. "We offer cellphone clients to laptop users." On handsets, users may have a service that helps out - he's particularly taken with the way Blackberry devices can handle VoIP through a server.
Building a consistent network
McAusland can't shed any light on the properties of competing vendors' 802.11n kit, because Concordia didn't look deeply at any. "We sent out an RFP, but this is a small upgrade, and we have been partnered with Cisco since putting in our VoIP network. We're basically almost 100 percent Cisco across the network. Any other product would have to show interoperability in a pretty significant way."
The back story here is that McAusland spent his first years on the job at Concordia bringing some sense to a network which he says was not "consistent," and included products from nine major vendors. "VoIP gave us the opportunity to build a solid network," he says: Cisco's Call Manager took the University from 4000 Centrex lines down to 400, and paid for the network rebuild in three and half years, he said.
This story perhaps helps explain Cisco's stranglehold on the Wi-Fi market, with 64 percent, around seven times that of its nearest rival, Aruba. It also says it has the lion's share of 802.11n deployments, claiming to be the first, and the only one actually shipping at the start of 2008 (a claim Meru would dispute).
Most public 802.11n deployments are in education, but Cisco claims to have plenty elsewhere. "Half our 802.11n deployments are in higher education," says Ben Gibson, director of marketing for wireless there. Others include large hotels and transport firms. "There's no other major vertical, but there is a spread out cross section."