A man holds a device with a campus wi-fi symbol above it.

5 reasons we upgraded our campus Wi-Fi

A network refresh transformed student wireless experiences at Chapman University while also positioning us to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6 and support whatever comes next

Meeting the expectations of today’s mobility-centric students has become a top priority in higher ed, including at Chapman University. Here, our student surveys consistently designate campus Wi-Fi as the most important service our institution provides. In our classrooms, mobile is rapidly becoming the norm with some colleges, such as in our School of Pharmacy, already all-wireless.

To meet the needs of the 13,000 mobile and IoT devices concurrently connecting to our campus Wi-Fi network, as well as support whatever comes next, we recently found ourselves at a crossroads. Here are the reasons a complete overhaul of our wireless infrastructure proved the right path for us.

Reason #1: Effectively resolve reliability complaints

About four years ago, student complaints about campus Wi-Fi skyrocketed. Connections frequently dropped when moving between classes, which often required a device reboot. It was also common for an individual to be standing in close proximity to an access point, but their connection was still unreliable.

Related content: 9 critical steps to Wi-Fi innovation

Although we attempted to improve the situation using tools provided by our previous vendor, we discovered that regardless of how we configured our access points – via the centralized interface or manual adjustment – the configurations would eventually, and unpredictably, drift.

Ultimately, we adopted a comprehensive Wi-Fi solution by Aruba (a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company). This transformed student satisfaction. Previously ranked among the least satisfying services, Wi-Fi surged to the head of the class. What’s more, wireless-related social media complaints have dropped to zero.

Beyond the student experience benefits, our IT staff is now able to focus on higher-value projects, such as exploring location awareness features within our campus Wi-Fi network, rather than scanning social media posts and troubleshooting problems.

Reason #2: Engineer outdoor coverage to meet new demands

Given our Southern California location, one of the advantages of attending Chapman is the ability to learn and collaborate in our beautiful outdoor spaces, such as in our Attallah Piazza and adjacent Canaday Amphitheatre.

Additionally, we were witnessing two other notable outdoor connectivity trends. First, as observed by other higher ed institutions, attending collegiate sporting events is now as much about sharing the experience as watching the game. Also, our coaches are increasingly keen to use tablets on the sidelines. Second, from a public safety perspective, we’re seeing stronger desire for connectivity in parking structures and outdoor walkways for ensuring dependable access to safety apps and Wi-Fi calling.

Only a few years ago, ruggedized high-performance outdoor wireless gear for blanketing external areas was “nice to have.” Today, it’s a requirement that our incumbent vendor was unable to fully address. With our new solution, we can select among multiple options.

Reason #3: Acquire scalable, sustainable, and flexible enterprise management capabilities

From our hurdles with addressing reliability complaints, we concluded a robust enterprise Wi-Fi solution was imperative for us to scale our wireless network sustainably. Four years ago, our campus Wi-Fi network included 1,300 APs. Now, it’s nearly triple that at 3,000 APs, with more coming online as we open a new 400-bed residence hall this fall, complete the engineering wing of our new science facility, continue building out our Irvine campus and finish adding connectivity to outdoor spaces.

With our new enterprise Wi-Fi, configurations are pushed out automatically, so a construction worker can simply hang APs where directed. Or, as others have pointed out, if an existing location needs more bandwidth, a technician can plug in another AP and the proper settings will be applied.

In addition, Aruba’s network optimization tool provides detailed real-time and historical traffic insights. This has reduced troubleshooting from hours to minutes has enabled us to make network adjustments proactively, to avoid help tickets in the first place.

As we’ve also adopted a range of Aruba’s edge and aggregation switches, we’re planning to leverage even more advanced networking features. This includes dynamic segmentation for aligning wired and wireless experiences without adding IT overhead.

Reason #4: Layer on strong security to protect our users and our network

Like many institutions, we originally deployed a completely open network as Wi-Fi was primarily used for internet connectivity. Later, we added VPNs for accessing internal systems, but this created complexity for users and IT.

Boosting Wi-Fi security with our legacy solution would’ve required bolting on at least two third party tools. This choice carried the usual risks around added points of failure, integration inconsistencies and buck-passing when support issues arose. It also presented scalability limitations, such as only 50 ACLs (access control lists) per SSID, which were untenable given our expected growth trajectory.

By upgrading our network, we acquired an intuitive and tightly integrated tool. It provides policy-based, automated authentication with exceptional scalability that further our efforts to streamline Wi-Fi management. Plus, we have access to ongoing innovation in this area, such as adding AI and machine learning for detecting and remediating anomalies faster and more cost-effectively than is humanly possible.

Reason #5: Gain a qualified user community

No matter how innovative a Wi-Fi solution, we all know that no technology is perfect. With our previous network we lacked a user community familiar with the challenges and opportunities encountered in higher-ed every day. That made Aruba’s vibrant, knowledgeable technology community the final, but not least important, factor that drove our upgrade.

Having peer institutions within the user community has opened up access to a range of deployment expertise. For example, we tapped the community to learn the most effective deployment and testing methods for multicast aggregation, which enable numerous wireless clients to share a wired-connected device for video streaming.

Back to the future

Moving forward, we’re excited about the many future-proof aspects of our new network. This includes the ease of transitioning to Wi-Fi 6 (aka 802.11ax), which we’ll begin with our new residence hall and at our performing arts center.

Most importantly, our campus Wi-Fi network has become a productivity enhancer that enables students, faculty and staff to go anywhere within our multi-location footprint, using any device, and have the same high-performance experience as with a wired desktop. In addition to the importance our students place on home-like experiences, outstanding Wi-Fi is critical to everyone at Chapman for completing their teaching, learning, administrative and scholarly research tasks.

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