The Case for a Comprehensive Approach to Developing the Wireless Campus
August 01, 2004

By Staff
Appeared in American School and University

As wireless technology has become a ubiquitous tool of modern life, college and university administrators increasingly recognize the need to develop a reliable wireless campus environment. There are a number of compelling reasons for this need including public safety, maintaining campus revenue opportunities, student and faculty recruitment, and technology leadership.

Steps toward a Wireless Campus

  • Identify campus strategies and stakeholders
  • Understand different interests of stakeholders to create a consensus approach
  • Coordinate and analyze on-campus RF testing
  • Strategize how 3G technology would affect antenna locations
  • Reconcile desired location(s) of carriers with campus preferences
  • Negotiate lease terms and conditions with carriers
  • Obtain permitting
  • Oversee design, contractors and construction
  • Upgrade infrastructures to accommodate co-located carrier sites

First and foremost, academic institutions must provide for public safety through the reliable transmission of 911 emergency calls. Today, one third of all nationwide 911 calls are placed from wireless phones, representing 170,000 calls per day -- yet many of these are dropped, prompting the FCC to develop new standards to improve reliability and administrators to consider the safety and liability implications for their institutions.¹

With more than two thirds of today’s students toting cell phones³, many academic institutions are experiencing declining revenues from residence hall landline service contracts, and need to develop new wireless business revenue to recoup these losses. For example, in a recent article in the Los Angeles Business Journal, San Diego State University alone reported a 40-percent drop in revenue from students’ long-distance calls, resulting in a loss of over $80,000.4

In order to remain competitive, today’s leading institutions must provide faculty and students with effective, secure campus-wide wireless voice and data service; and moreover, go-anywhere telecommunications and data access has become an important recruitment tool. This fact was emphasized in a recent survey by the Association of College and University Technology Administrators, where students said cell phone service is the Number One “in thing” on campus.5

Moreover, a reliable wireless environment is vital to maintaining the university’s reputation for leadership in technology among prospective and current students, faculty, alumni and campus visitors as a leader with the appropriate tools to support state-of-the-art research and learning. Imagine one university president’s chagrin when a valued alumni donor expressed frustration at experiencing dropped wireless business calls while visiting the president on campus.

High Stakes, High Returns
Given the high stakes associated with wireless service, colleges and universities today must take a comprehensive approach to developing a campus-wide wireless voice and data communications system. Ideally, it should be part of the overall campus master plan.

With carriers increasingly eager to place antennas on or adjacent to campuses, a university must be prepared to strategically manage the development and growth of this important resource to meet the needs of campus stakeholders in a myriad of areas and departments: student body, faculty, administration, staff, alumni, real estate, campus architect, physical plant, telecommunications, information technology, safety and security, and legal. A proactive, comprehensive approach is required to ensure adequate coverage, capacity and security to meet current and future needs, control the number, locations and aesthetics of antennas, and negotiate fair leasing and service agreements. It is also critical to minimize revenue loss due to antenna placement adjacent to, but not actually on, university owned or controlled property.

The Ideal Wireless Environment
The ideal campus wireless environment provides seamless coverage and reliable capacity for current and future technologies, maintains campus aesthetics through co-location and effective design and screening of antenna sites, and provides for protection of ongoing significant revenue stream opportunities.

A campus wireless system should provide seamless coverage for voice and data, as well as newer technologies – text transmission, graphics, streaming video – for various wireless devices, whether they are cell phones, PDAs or laptops.Accommodating these data requires more bandwidth, and therefore, more antennas.

Yet a campus can’t rely solely on existing commercial antennas on the perimeter of the campus to ensure adequate campus-wide coverage. The typical campus environment, dense with heavy masonry construction and trees, often blocks radio signals. Campuses also need reliable increased capacity at peak usage times, including between classes, evenings, athletic events, commencement and homecoming. In-building system enhancements, whereby carriers run fiber through the risers to transmission points on each floor to enhance reception, are often important to reinforce the radio signals and ensure that cell phones work inside the building as well as outside.

The college or university also must be prepared to accommodate newer technologies, including 3G – third-generation, fully digital, high-bandwidth wireless technology, which is capable of supporting high-speed internet access, video and other high-end applications; and high-bandwidth Wi-Fi -- wireless fidelity systems with 54 meg bandwidth capacity.
The administration also needs to protect campus aesthetics through effective planning and negotiation, and application of technical know-how. It is important for the campus planning team fully manage the details of the design, contractor selection and construction. The fact is, antennas are often highly visible and can be unattractive, and the fewer sites necessary to ensure coverage and capacity, the better.

On one specific campus, five carriers responded to an RFP performed radio frequency analyses of the campus – showing the campus planning team where signals are strong or weak. Between the five carriers, the carriers initially wanted to place new antenna sites on 30 buildings. The planning team used the RF analysis to identify opportunities to co-locate, and was able to reduce the number of antenna sites to six buildings. With campus aesthetics critical, carriers’ offers to camouflage antennas by painting them to match the building often prove to be inadequate to adequately preserve campus aesthetics. Campus planners are well-advised to require photosimulation of the installation and examine various alternatives prior to approving installation.

Planning is Key
Effective contract negotiations with carriers are essential for a college or university to gain full access to the significant revenue flow from wireless operations, and adequate protection from financial liability. Planning starts with a comprehensive analysis of how wireless fits with the campus master plan, financially and in terms of facilities. Among other issues, planners must look at projected revenue losses from landline service declines, anticipated wireless revenues, and the desirability of an exclusive agreement with a single carrier versus overlapping coverage from multiple carriers to satisfy faculty, students, staff, alumni who already have individual wireless service plans.

There are significant liability issues as well: for example, carriers will expect the institution to support their on-campus antenna sites and in-building enhancements. In the event of a power failure, the institution may be liable to the carrier for lost revenue. Along with these liability issues, there are also opportunities for significant revenue. At one higher educational institution for example, a single department negotiated placement of a tower on its facility in return for 12 cell phones; another negotiated a six-figure annual leasing agreement for some 30 well-placed antenna sites on three different campuses. Only after effective planning is the campus ready to proceed with the process of obtaining uninterrupted wireless coverage.

With the continued explosive growth of wireless technology, institutions of higher education must seize these opportunities and aggressively work to avoid the pitfalls associated with developing a wireless campus infrastructure. In order to do so, they must take a comprehensive, strategic planning approach. A proactive, comprehensive approach involving representatives of all stakeholders, plus effective management of the process, is required to meet the university’s needs now and in the foreseeable future.


David Kinzler is senior vice president of Technology and Jerry Burkhardt is vice president of Critical Facilities of Syska Hennessy Group, Inc., which offers Wireless Umbrella SM, a comprehensive planning and development service for wireless communications.

¹ Presentation, Catherine W. Seidel, Deputy Bureau Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, Federal Communications Commission, ACUTA Spring Seminar, Norfolk Va., April 2003; ², 5 Presentation, Eric Weil and Milly Gichner, survey analysts, Student Monitor, ACUTA Spring Seminar; 4 Los Angeles Business Journal, September 30, 2002