WLAN Scores Good Marks at an Alabama University

Managing information technology on a college campus presents numerous challenges. One of the biggest issues, particularly for a major university, is providing robust wireless access for students, faculty, staff and visitors.

“There’s a need to move beyond the traditional environment where a professor simply shows up and lectures at a podium,” states Vinson Houston, vice president of information technology at Jacksonville State University (JSU). “We are a lecture-based school, and we wanted to introduce a framework where people could collaborate seamlessly—both in the classroom and outside of it.”

The Jacksonville, Ala., public university, with more than 8,300 undergraduate and graduate students, recognized that a major wireless network upgrade was in order. The school needed to drastically improve connectivity in classrooms, residence halls and meeting spaces so that faculty and students could use multiple devices—including tablets, smartphones and laptops— throughout the day as they move around the campus. In fact, a typical JSU student uses three to five devices daily.

“Students and faculty required access to content management systems and other tools,” Houston reports. “The previous multivendor network could no longer support our needs.”

Widespread iPad Usage Drives WLAN Deployment

The university began exploring alternatives as early as 2011, but the idea for a wireless reboot didn’t gain momentum until 2014. The tipping point, Houston says, was when the school began issuing iPads to about 50 percent of incoming freshman.

After examining a variety of vendors and approaches, JSU turned to an 802.11ac WLAN network from Zebra Technologies and switched it on in the spring of 2015. The system spans the 459-acre campus. In addition to serving buildings and offices (many of them dating back to the early 20th century and presenting connectivity challenges), the WLAN delivers high bandwidth for areas such as parking lots, lounges, libraries, athletic facilities, eateries and even the dorm laundromat.

A key factor in selecting this wireless technology, Houston explains, was the ability to plug in Zebra’s intelligent access points, which continue to operate even when a controller is down. The solution also provides easier and powerful administration tools, greater interoperability with other IT systems, and a higher level of security.

The transition to the new wireless network went smoothly. “We did a lot of upfront planning and preparation, including consulting other institutions to learn how they had approached wireless network upgrades,” Houston explains.

In addition, Zebra helped the school develop a “heat map” in order to place the access points in the most strategic and optimal locations. The school now supports more than 21,000 unique devices on the wireless network.

Houston says that the end result has been transformative. “We have eliminated access issues and connectivity problems, and have adopted a robust wireless environment that serves our faculty, student and visitor populations well,” he reports.

JSU is continuing to add and tweak access points, and it is now looking to add connectivity to green spaces and common areas away from buildings and other facilities. “We have a network in place that will support the school and learning now and in the future,” Houston concludes.