Some departments can’t afford wireless Internet access

The U pays for common spaces, but departments have to fund anything more.

Rebecca Harrington

Producing art is not just putting brush to canvas anymore. Professors in University of Minnesota’s Department of Art are teaching in a digital age.

But some say their lack of wireless Internet access is getting in the way.

The University pays for wireless access where it benefits the “common good” — places where there’s a high demand — but departments have to fund wireless in additional buildings and offices from their own budgets.

“If the University’s central budget paid for wireless access everywhere, we would have to start increasing taxes or tuition — we’d have to get the money from somewhere,” said Scott Studham, chief information officer and vice president of information technology.

Each access point costs about $1,200 for installation and hardware, according to Louis Hammond, senior manager of networking and telecommunication services for the Office of Information Technology.

For the art department, that’s too much, said Sonja Peterson, the department’s information technology professional.

“We are kind of at a standstill,” she said, “because as a department, we don’t have a budget to expand to purchase wireless service.”

OIT surveys where additional wireless access will benefit the “common good” every year and adds more access points in those places, Studham said.

If the additional access request won’t benefit enough people, he said, OIT can’t use its funds to pay for it.

“It would be inappropriate to use common good money for just a few people,” he said.

Peterson said she contacted OIT for more access points two years ago, but upon finding out what the department would have to pay, she couldn’t get them.

Art professor Diane Katsiaficas and Peterson both said it’s hard to teach effectively in classrooms without wireless.

“I know we definitely have budget constraints,” Peterson said. “But if it overrides an instructor’s ability to teach a class, I think it’s a real issue.”

Hammond said the process of getting additional wireless access points starts with a department’s request. Then, OIT designs a plan to improve the wireless and gives the department a bid for the job.

If the department cannot afford it, Hammond said, OIT designs a different plan that they can afford.

“We try to negotiate it if there’s some common good effort,” he said. “We’ll work with the departments — especially if there’s performance issues.”

 

Supply and demand

Wireless access points have more than doubled over the last five years, but the demand is always growing.

In 2007, the Twin Cities campus had 1,700 access points. OIT has since increased this number to nearly 4,700, Hammond said.

OIT data shows that during the month of September, nearly 82,000 different people accessed the University’s wireless network. Last year an average of fewer than 70,000 used it monthly.

Hammond said this number will only continue to increase, and OIT is adding an average of about 50 access points per month to handle the demand.

Not only is the number of users increasing, but so is the number of sessions they log in to the wireless network on different devices.

Jennifer Nguyen, a pre-pharmacy sophomore, said she always has trouble with the wireless in Coffman Union — the building with more traffic than any other on campus.

Hammond said too many people using an access point can oversaturate it, causing the wireless to run slowly. When OIT recognizes an access point is oversaturated, he said, it will fix it.

 

Support

One of OIT’s biggest challenges with wireless access, Hammond said, is when it’s unaware of an issue.

“Users typically don’t call us to say it doesn’t work,” he said. “That makes it hard to troubleshoot when we don’t get the feedback of problems.”

Tanner Zimmerman, a freshman studying psychology, said he has trouble connecting in Comstock Hall but hasn’t asked anyone about it.

But Zimmerman said he hasn’t experienced problems at his workplace in Appleby Hall’s basement.

Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria, principle administrative specialist in Chicano and Latino Studies, said OIT replaced the wireless access point near his office this summer, but it was still “spotty.”

“It’s gotten slightly better,” he said, “but I still can’t catch wireless in certain places.”

Sanchez-Chabarria said the structure of Scott Hall was probably the reason, and Hammond agreed that old buildings were another challenge in providing wireless.

Hammond said his favorite part of the job is seeing the wireless function correctly, “exceeding the customer’s expectations.”

Ulya Karpuzcu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, said she was having trouble staying connected to the wireless at the beginning of the school year, but after two weeks, OIT had fixed the problem.

“That’s what we’re here to support,” Hammond said.

Katsiaficas said as good as the support might be, it is not enough when departments cannot afford their services.

“I think CLA-OIT is great,” Katsiaficas said. “It’s just that the use is far outstripping what budget is available to us.”