ITS begins plans for outdoor WiFi

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Students study outside Stewart-Cleland Hall ("Stewie") at Occidental College. Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/The Occidental

The Information Technology Services department (ITS) is planning to introduce wireless internet access to some of the most popular outdoor areas on campus. According to James Uhrich, chief information officer and associate vice president of ITS, the plans are still in the early stages and will not be installed until the following academic year due to the project’s technical and financial difficulties.

Uhrich said that ideally he would like to install Wi-Fi to areas that are most frequented by students and faculty. This includes the quad, near the Gilman fountain, the planned Steuer Oval, Mullin Grove, outside the Johnson Student Center, Sycamore Glen and in some outdoor spaces near residence halls. According to Uhrich, Wi-Fi will not be accessible to all outdoor areas on campus and each location will be chosen based on the logistical and financial limits of installing the wireless connection.

Uhrich said that although the ITS department has worked over the past several years to ensure that the academic and residential buildings have Wi-Fi, they have not yet had the chance to expand it beyond the buildings. Currently, the patio outside of the Hameetman Career Center is the only wireless set up specifically for an outdoor space, according to Uhrich.

“That’s something I’ve always thought has been lacking, because one of the best things about being on this campus is being in the outdoor spaces,” Uhrich said.

Uhrich said that ITS prioritized Wi-Fi in academic and residential buildings before thinking of extending it outside because it is more important for a successful learning environment, whereas he said that outdoor Wi-Fi is more of a luxury.

Alexis Hale (junior) said that there is a large dead zone in the quad and between other buildings on campus, such as Erdman Hall and the Tiger Cooler. She said that when she is doing work in the quad, she avoids having to use the internet.

“Sometimes where the Wi-Fi is out right now, people will still use it, and if you sit close enough to the library, you can get a signal,” Hale said.

A student works in the Academic Quad on their laptop at Occidental College. Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/The Occidental

According to Uhrich, it is possible to get a wireless signal outdoors because the signal is leaking out of the buildings. In order to install wireless for an area like the quad, ITS would need to strategically install devices called access points around the area to ensure that the signal reaches the entire outdoor area.

Director of Technical Services Steven Gilman, who has been the leader of the wireless projects, said that outdoor access points are larger than indoor ones and are therefore more noticeable. Access points would need to be placed discretely so that they do not constrast with the historical buildings on campus.

“We want to provide a great wireless experience but we need to also be mindful of not marring our beautiful and historic campus,” Gilman said.

Uhrich said that installation is also complicated by the fact that the devices need to be plugged in and the signal emitted can be interrupted by trees and other buildings that surround the access point.

“To get good signal strength, we would need to dedicate access points either mounted on or near buildings and direct them so their signal is intentionally going out to the quad or near the fountain or whatever outdoor space it’s in,” Uhrich said. “Any object that it needs to go through can diminish the signal, but there are ways you can accommodate that.”

Uhrich said that before they can begin the actual installation, more planning is required to ensure the quality of the wireless service.

“If we are going to do this, we need to make sure that the quality is such that when we say this is wireless in the quad, anywhere you go in the quad you can get on the wireless,” Uhrich said.

Funding for wireless improvements on campus, including any outdoor installations, comes from the ITS capital budget, according to the Uhrich. This portion of the budget is designated for technical infrastructure upgrades, replacements and enhancements. Uhrich said that it should cover the cost of adding additional wireless access points without taking away from ITS’s other necessities and services.

Hale said areas around the quad and near the fountain would be more popular if they had reliable wireless access.

“On the sunny days, you’d see a lot more people in the quad utilizing the Wi-Fi,” Hale said.

Uhrich said that ITS works with the Facilities department to ensure that new plans for the construction or restoration of spaces on campus include wireless installation capabilities. They will also be working with Facilities for the actual installation of outdoor wireless.

The plans for outdoor wireless are still in the early stages. Gilman said that are other wireless projections that are on the table, including replacing the 40 percent of existing access points that are expiring in 2020. Uhrich said that there will be more discussions about installation over the summer within ITS and with Facilities. Actual installation would not start until next academic year at the earliest.