9 critical steps to wi-fi innovation

Invaluable Insights from transitioning 2.9 million square feet into user-centric, mobile-first indoor spaces for University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s 12,000 students

Before mobility became essential for recruiting and retention, we deployed a wi-fi network at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock that was adequate for meeting institutional requirements and academic demands. Fast-forward several years and our hodge-podge of antiquated equipment from multiple vendors couldn’t handle modern needs. Today, as we’re finishing up a major refresh, we’d like to share nine steps that were critical to gaining the right outcome for us.

Step 1: Articulate the primary goal – it’s more effective than it may seem
Despite sounding like a no-brainer, honing our business drivers into a concise primary goal proved effective because the exercise informed many of the ensuing steps. For us, the primary goal was modernizing our wi-fi to be a differentiator for attracting and retaining today’s mobility-empowered students by offering a home-like user-centric wireless experience to permit students to connect any device quickly, easily, and securely.

Step 2: Seek formal student involvement – what you learn can save the day
Like many institutions, we have a student IT advisory board that typically attracts those with a technology affinity. However, our wi-fi refresh would touch every student, regardless of their interest in the mechanics of making it work.

To validate our refresh plans, we sought out our Student Government Association (SGA) and learned their assistance would help us far more than anticipated. The SGA was a powerful advocate with our administration, which became invaluable over the course of the deployment.

Our SGA interactions uncovered strong student desire for wi-fi coverage in unplanned locations. For example, students desired coverage in our fitness center to enable streaming content while exercising. Prior to the SGA’s involvement, the fitness center was outside the project’s scope because we viewed mobility through an academic lens. The SGA also took the lead convincing our administration that fitness center wi-fi was necessary for meeting our primary goal. In the end, it became the first building we modernized.

Step 3: Form a strategic IT partnership – selecting a vendor isn’t enough
In the years leading up to our refresh, we struggled with our existing wi-fi. In addition to our hodge-podge of antiquated equipment from multiple vendors, none of our vendors provided an effective way to evolve our WLAN. We also had difficulty getting answers about each vendor’s technology intentions to assist us with planning for the future.

This experience created a keen interest in forming a strategic IT partnership rather than simply purchasing equipment. We found such a partner in Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. Our partner’s representatives helped optimize our wi-fi network design, including an exceptionally detailed design document for every network component within each facility. Throughout our deployment, our partner’s engineers were on the ground to provide assistance and furnish the knowledge transfer so vital for sustainability. We also were given excellent visibility into the company’s innovation pipeline, ensuring we could build a holistic solution with confidence.

Step 4: Leverage the IT partnership to standardize experiences – bridge those departmental divides
To meet our primary goal, we needed to standardize technology and experiences across our enterprise to eliminate the previous “haves” and “have nots” paradigm, which was based on what each department could afford. Our IT partner embraced the opportunity to ease the way.

Because standardizing required more funds than immediately available, Aruba offered several financing structures. This allowed us to engage campus leadership to discuss the benefits of standardization and stimulate campus to creatively fund the much-needed upgrade by reinvesting internally.

Step 5: Focus on scalability and flexibility, as well as affordability – always play the long game
Rather than getting mired in discussions around initial outlays, we factored in scalability and flexibility to obtain a solution that’s cost-effective over the long run. For example, when bandwidth demand escalates in a certain area, our wi-fi solution enables plugging in an appropriate access point (AP) at a minimal cost. Also, our solution’s management tools allow for making network and security configuration changes quickly and easily, which significantly reduces IT overhead.

Similarly, as our institution identifies new competitive differentiation opportunities, flexibility and scalability makes adoption of associated technologies affordable. Just one option under discussion is location awareness. Whether developing an app for navigating campus, automating attendance-taking, contributing to campus safety, or offering new services like pushing out dining menus to nearby devices, the ability to consider such advances required the right infrastructure across our enterprise.

Step 6: Save big by resizing the network for mobile-first – millions in savings are at stake
As the default connection for modern devices is wi-fi, it made sense to resize our network to emphasize wireless and decommission non-essential wired ports. To do so, we evaluated utilization patterns on our 29,000 wired ports using the IT management tool Netdisco. Ultimately, we decommissioned more than 19,000 ports. As this reduced associated costs by $2M, we reinvested the funds into our wireless deployment.

Step 7: Choose a cost-effective residence wi-fi solution – yet more savings while gaining positive outcomes
We achieved another $150,000 in cost-avoidance from adopting hospitality-style APs in student rooms, rather than the general purpose APs used throughout the balance of our institution. Although students receive the same quality experiences, the hospitality APs leverage existing cabling, unlike regular APs, hence lowering costs.

Step 8: Adopt policy-based access control to secure and streamline mobility & Internet of Things (IoT) – with skyrocketing device counts, you’ll be glad you did
By committing to an “any device” policy, we needed to secure the resulting explosion of faculty, student, guest, and IoT devices while simultaneously delivering easy, home-like connection experiences. For example, my AppleTV expects network proximity to my laptop. It’s the same story in our academic departments, where we’re seeing faculty adoption of devices like Microsoft Hololens for engineering courses. From a security perspective, this means we can’t segregate IoT devices from computing equipment. By deploying sophisticated, yet intuitive, policy-based access control solution, users seamlessly register all of their devices while we govern each device’s permissions and restrictions.

Step 9: Demonstrate how new infrastructure contributes to student success – no sense hiding modernization benefits under a rock
Once our new wi-fi was deployed, we began noting and communicating the benefits. This assists with adoption satisfaction, supports the wisdom of the expenditure, and assists non-technical individuals with conceiving how to leverage the infrastructure in new ways. In one case, our network served as a physical safety tool for locating a student in need of services by pinpointing the whereabouts of the individual’s connected TV. Academically, we’ve seen an increasing embrace of game-changing classroom engagement and interaction apps, such as Kahoot, for giving professors real-time visibility into which concepts student comprehend and which merit immediately revisiting.

In short, the extra steps we followed not only provided us with technology we can build upon but also are empowering all campus constituencies in new ways. It’s an exciting transformation academically as well as for our goal to create a welcoming environment for our students.

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