At UF, Wireless Coverage Brings Internet Outdoors
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Civil engineering students can tap it as part of their training in outdoor surveying. Veterinary students could use it to search through disease databases as they examine animals in the field.
University of Florida students can now go online outdoors.
As part of UF’s ongoing Wireless Campus Initiative, many gathering spots and outdoor areas on campus — including centrally located Turlington Plaza — now provide wireless access to the Internet. And there’s no need to log off if it rains. Twenty buildings also offer laptop and handheld users the option to log on without wires, as do all 45 classrooms in UF’s engineering college.
“We’ve moved beyond the old ‘computer room’ concept,’” said Sumi Helal, associate professor of computer and information sciences and engineering and a leader of the initiative.
At a time when students routinely turn to the Internet for research or university services such as renewing books or registering for classes, the immediate goal is to ease online access.
UF technicians led by network engineer Matt Grover of the UF Office of Information Technology have installed about 100 “access points” around UF. The range for the cigar box-size electronics package and small antennas varies based on their proximity to nearby structures, but coverage around campus is extensive.
All buildings and much of the outdoors around the law college have wireless coverage, Grover said. Ditto the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, the Hub, the Reitz Union and the lawn between the Hub and the Reitz Union.
To access the service, users must buy and install a wireless card, which start at about $70. They can then tap the network using their student or faculty campus account, known as a Gatorlink account. There is no added fee or usage charge.
Dave Pokorney, assistant director of network services, said UF does not view wireless coverage as a replacement for fiber-optic or other “hard-wired” connections.
Those connections are faster and more dependable than current wireless, he said.
While wired connections at UF generally provide download speeds of 9 to over 90 megabits per second depending on the connection, wireless downloads typically run at around 6 megabits, Pokorney said. And as more and more users go wireless, network downloads get slower and slower since bandwidth is shared among users, he said.
But wireless coverage does give users the unique ability to remain online while moving from place to place.
For Pokorney and Helal, an expert in wireless computing whose research focuses on future applications for mobile computing, that connectivity raises exciting possibilities.
Campus police could use the network to download information to patrol cars in a crisis, such as the location of hazardous chemicals or emergency exits. Physical plant workers fixing, say, a building’s ductwork, could download the schematic from the central office, then order any needed parts or supplies.
And just as Internet access has become essential to most classes, so wireless coverage could become a regular part of a UF education, Helal said.
For example, civil engineering students learning to use survey transits could upload collected data to a central computer, check it for errors and then resurvey any problem measurements while still in the field. Veterinary medicine researchers and students could turn to the Web or the library while diagnosing diseased farm animals at their pens.
“You’re able to access resources to make decisions right there at the source of the study,” Pokorney said.
Further into the future, the technology could be used, for example, as a backbone for a campus navigation system for the blind, Pokorney said. Another dreamy application: technology that would let motorists know where parking is available as they hunt UF’s famously congested campus for a space.
“You’d drive by the parking lot and the computer would tell you it was full, or maybe that there were spaces left in the southwest corner,” Helal said.
The approximately $180,000 spent on the Wireless Campus Initiative so far has been provided by UF and the UF College of Engineering, but leaders are looking for additional money to expand the network. Corporate sponsors include Cisco Systems, which provided a grant to support the initiative.