Ball State Aims to Be the Big WiMAX on Campus

Thursday May 6th 2010 by Gerry Blackwell

While most universities are panicking over the 2011 deadline to use or lose an educational spectrum grant, Indiana's Ball State University is taking an entrepreneurial approach to its managed WiMAX service, helping other schools before time runs out.

Colleges and universities across the United States are caught in an interesting dilemma: Many, if not most, have been sitting for a few years on 2.5 GHz EBS (Educational Broadband Service) spectrum licensed from the FCC that they could be using to operate WiMAX networks. Few, however, are. Many lease part of what they own to companies such as Sprint and Clearwire. But now they risk losing whatever spectrum they haven't leased, just when there is something interesting and useful they could be doing with it.

EBS spectrum holders face a fast-approaching use-it-or-lose-it deadline in their FCC contracts. If they can't show they're making 'substantial' use of the spectrum by 2011, the federal regulator will take it back.

What to do?

Ball State University (BSU) in Muncie, Indiana, the only institution of higher learning to actually deploy a WiMAX network so far, believes it has a solution.

Partly with the help of Cisco, the school has built a fully mobile 802.16e WiMAX network that provides coverage across campus and within a two-mile radius to take in off-campus housing and staff/faculty residences.

It has also developed a quasi-commercial capability for providing services to other schools to help them quickly build their own WiMAX networks. BSU can provide consulting and also remote management and monitoring of networks, which saves other universities the capital expense of building their own WiMAX network management infrastructure.

BSU Provides Academic Community With Relevant Expertise

"The window of opportunity is rapidly closing [for other schools]," notes Robert Yadon, professor and director of the Applied Research Institute, part of BSU's Center for Information and Communications Sciences.

"We represent a ray of hope for them if they do want to deploy and maintain their frequency. At least now there is someone in the academic community that can provide some assistance. And we've been in the business since 2006."

This unusual offer comes out of a long history with broadband wireless at BSU, and a fruitful partnership between the academic and administrative sides of the school. With the FCC deadline looming, it may be just in the nick of time for some other institutions.

"There is definitely some panic now about how they're going to meet the substantial use deadline in 2011," says Vernon Draper, the school's assistant director of computing in charge of communications and networking.

"They're just waking up to the problem and they know they're behind the eight ball. This is not just a Wi-Fi skill set. It takes some time to acquire the skills needed."

University of Wisconsin Configured by Remote

One school, the University of Wisconsin at Madison at Madison, has already used the BSU services. After the university installed network base stations, Draper's group stepped in -- remotely.

It was able to configure the Wisconsin network and get it up and running within three days. "And I think we could do it faster," he says. BSU continues to provide monitoring and maintenance for UW.

The University of Wisconsin was BSU's first paying client. "And we hope they won't be the last," Yadon says. The school is deliberately taking an "entrepreneurial" approach to its work with WiMAX, Draper adds.

There have been other enquiries, including from one California county that wants to light up its entire territory. And BSU has provided consulting support to a few other schools in Indiana, where it heads a consortium that provides a mutual support group for meeting the substantial-use deadline.

BSU has the skills because it has been active with broadband wireless since the very early days Wi-Fi on campus. At one point, the school was ranked by Intel as number one in the country for its innovative use of the technology.

"That recognition felt good to the university," Draper explains. "And we made a conscious decision to maintain that branding with broadband wireless. So we were always looking out past Wi-Fi to what came after. We wanted to provide some leadership in this technology."

Meanwhile, on the academic side, Yadon's Applied Research Institute was just as keen to pursue broadband wireless and the business of broadband wireless as part of its curriculum and research.

The institute has been involved in research and testing since before it was possible to use EBS spectrum for WiMAX -- the spectrum was originally intended for broadcast applications -- and before the WiMAX standard was ratified.

And all along, there has been the close partnership with Draper's department -- and more recently, with Cisco, which supplied infrastructure equipment for the school's seven-base station mobile WiMAX network.

Yadon's department and its graduate students worked side by side with Draper's staff to design, build and test the campus network and develop the service offering to other schools. Now they're beginning human factors testing – trying to figure out how the BSU community can and should use the network.

The network is in fact not being widely used yet, although it has been fully built out for some months. This is because the testing required under a contract with Cisco meant constant changes that would have been disruptive for real users, Draper explains.

Free WiMAX Dongles

Now that phase of the project is complete and the school is beginning to roll out service to the university community on a pilot basis, starting with 200 graduate students who are receiving WiMAX USB dongles to use with their laptops -- gratis. "It's like Christmas," Draper says.

BSU is not content to simply roll out the network and have it used for broadband Internet access alone. "It's great to have a network, but if it just does the same things the Wi-Fi network did, what's the point," Draper says.

Yadon's department is studying a range of special and advanced applications that it hopes to build as part of research projects and/or in partnership with Draper's group to roll out for campus use.

"It's similar to the Wi-Fi environment that we had," Yadon says, "but because of the speed of WiMAX, there [is] a whole host of other things we can do, from security to environmental monitoring of buildings to meter reading. And because it's mobile, you can do anything from tracking buses to putting remote cameras in university police cruisers."

The bus tracking application, which involves installing a WiMAX transmitter on the shuttle bus that moves students on and off and around campus, is close to being ready. Draper's group has already produced a prototype that would allow WiMAX-enabled handhelds and laptops to see on a map exactly where the bus is at any time, so they can figure out where and when to catch it.

It would be a useful application in Muncie, Indiana, Draper says, "because it gets awfully cold here in the winter."

The school is also doing extensive WiMAX interoperability testing – going well beyond what commercial WiMAX operators would do in this regard, Draper says. It is even looking at the feasibility of seamless hand-offs between 3.5 GHz and 2.5 GHz network segments.

Students have first dibs on test equipment, but BSU is also testing WiMAX customer premises equipment that could be used to provide service to staff and faculty in their homes.

In the meantime, Ball State is open for business as a WiMAX consultant and network manager. "We would absolutely welcome approaches from other schools," Draper says.

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