The World Wireless Web

February 12, 2001

Mark Miester

The man who changed the way we see the World Wide Web is about to change the way we connect to it, too. Jim Clark, co-founder of Netscape Communications and a member of the Tulane board, has pledged $1.7 million to help the university become one of only a handful in the nation to offer campuswide wireless network access to faculty, staff and students.

The new technology will enable computer and personal digital assistant users virtually anywhere on campus to check their e-mail, download files and surf the Net without the tether of an Ethernet cable or phone line.

"Wireless technology has revolutionized the communications and business world and it can do the same for our educational system," Clark says. "We want students to have technology that is as free roaming as the human mind."

According to Jed Diem, vice president of information systems, it was Clark's personal experience with wireless technology that prompted his interest in the project.

"Having a wireless network in his home really had a profound impact on him and his family," Diem says. "And I know I've put an installation in my house, and it's really changed how I work."

Besides making network information both portable and mobile, enabling users to access online content in much the same way they'd read a text book, newspaper or magazine, Diem says the wireless network offers yet unknown possibilities for integrating online material into the fabric of university life.

"You can imagine a student walking around the library with a PDA [personal digital assistant] and searching the card catalog," Diem says.
A wireless network involves the installation of remote radio receivers, called access points, which receive signals from computers equipped with wireless network cards. Tulane currently plans to install 676 access points across the university, spanning the uptown and downtown campuses, as well as campuses in Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes.

The installation represents the first in a two-stage plan to create a comprehensive wireless network at Tulane. This first stage focuses on portable computing needs by providing wireless network access at locations around campus conducive to laptop computer use. The second stage of the project, which will focus on mobile computing resources, requires an upgrade of Tulane's wired network and the installation of outdoor access points.

The result will be the creation of a cellular-phone-like coverage area, enabling hand-held computer users to roam freely around campus without losing connectivity. The estimated cost of the second phase is approximately $4 million. Diem says the university is in the final stages of selecting a vendor to provide the access points. He expects the universitywide installation to be complete by the beginning of the spring 2002 semester, but select areas around campus should be equipped with access points by this fall.

Users of the wireless network can experience data throughput of up to 11.4 megabytes per second, says Tim Deeves, director of networking services. For comparison, the standard Ethernet connection rate is 10 megabytes per second. Deeves adds that the 11.4 megabytes per second rate on the wireless network is shared by all users of that particular access point, so the signal will vary based on the number of users connected via each access point.

Wireless network cards currently retail for approximately $150, but Diem says he hopes to contract with a single vendor to offer a discount on the card Tulane chooses to support. If the technology has a downside, it's that users must currently choose between the wireless card and a traditional Ethernet card, which typically costs about $150 and is used to connect a computer to the network via a cable. Diem says a resolution to that conflict may be on the horizon.

Card manufacturer Xircom is reportedly coming out with a card that is a combination wireless card and Ethernet card. According to Diem, the wireless project is unique among technology initiatives at Tulane.

"This, because of the way the funding came, is an identifiable project that will have an impact all over campus at the same time," Diem says. "That to me is a big thing." Diem adds that the nature of the technology's introduction to campus offers a unique learning opportunity. "There's not much understanding of the effect of mobile computing," Diem says.

"This project offers an opportunity for research into how mobile computing can effect people's lives, and it offers the opportunity for scientists and engineers, on both the hardware and software sides, to use this as a laboratory in which to develop new technology."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000