Wireless at VCU remains a virtual reality

Sept. 4, 2003, a Commonwealth Times front-page story proclaimed VCU’s offering of Internet access with “no strings attached.” The article detailed plans to expand wireless access to the University Student Commons, campus dining centers and other common areas, including some of the university’s residence halls.

Since then, however, little progress has been made in expanding wireless Internet access at VCU. Even worse, access once freely available in the open area in and around the Commons Plaza is now nowhere to be found. VCU’s expanded Commons and new dining facilities are completely lacking of the service as well.

VCUnet, a division of administrative information technology, says on its Web site that the deployment of wireless technology is “required to maintain a competitive stance with other universities” and “provide ubiquitous access to learning resources,” facilitating collaboration among students, faculty and staff.

Deployment in common areas, according to the Web site, is the responsibility of VCUnet, while deployment in other VCU buildings is up to the various schools that “have a business need” to provide wireless coverage. Schools are asked to work with VCUnet should they decide to have a wireless network installed.

The problem with this kind of hands-off approach is that it leaves schools without any incentive to deploy wireless networks, and – more importantly – without any proactive encouragement to do so. Wireless access is a university-wide need, yet individual schools are left with the responsibility to provide it.

As a result, wireless access on campus, far from being ubiquitous, is only available in certain areas of a few buildings. And where service is available, access is hindered by the requirement that students go through a cumbersome process of downloading obscure, proprietary software to be able to log in to the network.

It is understandable that the university would want to use such software to maintain a network secure from the threat of hackers, but logging into our wireless network should be no more difficult than logging into computers at the library, using an ordinary browser and the same name and password we use for other VCU services.

VCUnet also cites security concerns in its current policy that encourages schools to keep wireless signals contained inside buildings. Yet this feudal policy fails to capitalize on a significant competitive advantage we have as an urban university: our campus is better able to provide a seamless wireless experience.

Other cities have seen the advantage of building community by offering wireless Internet access not just in open areas, but also along entire city blocks. VCU could provide students with a similar service by placing wireless access points along the edges of its buildings, especially where they fall near open areas like Shafer Court.

Richmond, too, could improve its image by providing wireless access in Monroe Park for city residents and students who choose to study and do business there. Similar access already exists in and around the Farmer’s Market at Shockoe Bottom, and VCU would do well to build on that success.

The university’s residence halls should especially be a top priority in providing wireless access. Currently, official policy prevents students from using their own wireless technology, tying students down to their dorm room connections. Instead, wireless-enabled common areas could be an impetus for spontaneous group study.

In providing wireless services, VCU should also make it easier for students to be aware of the network status by providing periodic updates, using maps to detail where students can find wireless signals. This would also put pressure on schools throughout the universit that have not yet adopted wireless technology to do so.

Common-sense decisions like these could help VCU and the city of Richmond improve their respective national profiles and attract potential students and future residents. Some of our schools appear at the top of U.S. News rankings – why not our university and city at the top of “most-wired” rankings in other publications?

One of the reasons I decided to attend VCU was its commitment to technology, from eServices to [email protected] and the Student Computer Initiative. VCU should live up to that commitment when it comes to providing students with wireless services on campus – and thereby improving the VCU experience.

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