Director of Computer Services, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University
October 5, 2001
Wireless networking is evolving. This paper will give a snapshot of the situation,
particularly as it applies to universities, in October 2001.
The Changed Campus in the Wireless World
We all believe that wireless networking will change our campuses. Today, there are
already several campuses with fully developed wireless infrastructures and many more
campuses with significant and growing wireless networks. An informal survey of
computing leaders at a number of such campuses1 shows that wireless on campus leads to
some obvious results. Students, faculty and staff move to own more laptops and take
them from place to place on campus more than the ever did with wired connections.
Dining rooms, libraries, lawns, athletics facilities, offices, hallways and classrooms
become places for email, surfing the net, looking at course web pages and instant
messaging. For students with wireless laptop computers, there is no longer a need to go to
computer labs--no need to use library terminals. The wireless step is the critical one that
frees students from the confines of fixed locations. Faculty too, takes their computers
between offices, labs, libraries, classrooms and meetings and the resources of the net are
available to them. In the classroom it is much easier to have students see assignments,
exercises, and research on the wireless net and it is easier from them to play as well. As a
result every classroom can be a computer lab or a major distraction.
Wireless networking does not mean that every member of the university community will
be carrying a device with them wherever they go. These devices are heavy and not
always a welcome burden. There is still a stigma attached to the student who types in
notes in class, with or without a network connection—it does make noise and bother
others. Wireless devices are expensive and those that have them rightfully fear theft and
breakage. Students carry laptops in backpacks and they are tossed, stepped on and
otherwise mistreated and loss of the use of a laptop computer can render a student nearly
helpless in a computerized world. In class students on the wireless net can be physically
present but involved with unrelated distracting net activities. This bothers many
instructors who have placed overt restrictions on the use of computers during class.
Despite wireless on campus there is still a future for campus computer labs. The labs
themselves can become a place for better interaction as some students with wireless
computers sit with and compare notes with those on lab systems. Students who do not
Obtained at meetings where wireless networking was discussed including Harvard, Penn State, Carnegie
Mellon, University of Colorado, UCLA, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Dartmouth.
have their wireless devices with them can use computers in the labs as before. With the
combination of fixed computers and wireless the lab becomes more of a collaboration
center, which is many cases is a desirable result. Of course, collaboration of this intensity
can also lead to problems, which are a new challenge to instructors.
An interesting side effect of a wireless campus is printing. Users of wireless devices will
expect to print wherever they are and many printing systems do not support this option.
Campuses that charge for printing or have multiple printing systems, different in the
library and in computer labs for example, will be motivated to find a solution to let any
wireless user print to whatever public printer is convenient. Hopefully software solutions,
not presently available for all uses, will be developed to enable such ubiquitous printing,
even with charging for use.
In meetings, too, wireless computers change the way the participants behave. During a
presentation or discussion wireless participants can go to websites and check what the
speaker is saying. This indeed happens frequently at meetings of the University Common
Solutions Group, where wireless networked communications have been available for
several years. It is a new experience for a presenter to stand before a group, in which
everyone is reading or typing on their computer. The participants also use messaging to
comment on the topic at hand, to take polls and to plan for future presentations. Everyone
does not accept this behavior!
In this paper I list not only the primary wireless standard being installed by universities,
802.11b, but also the commercial wireless offerings on digital phone nets and special
networks. Students, faculty and staff may wish to use these external wireless options until
wireless nets are installed everywhere on campus or in lieu of campus networks. Indeed,
in law schools, business schools and other professional schools many students use these
external wireless nets because of their presence in the professional world. The external
wireless nets remove nearly all control of wireless from universities. For example, when
the Harvard Business School turned off wireless access on their 802.11b net during final
exams, they found that students still tried to connect via external commercial wireless.
Despite their disadvantages—slow speed and cost—the commercial providers will likely
continue to play a role in the wireless plans of members of the university community.
Wired verses Wireless
Now that most universities have their wired network infrastructure built there is suddenly
a demand for a new wireless infrastructure. Does this mean that the wired network in
obsolete? Of course not! The whole network infrastructure contains a place for wired and
wireless connections. Every wireless access point using the 802.11 standards needs a
wired connection. Wiring for wireless access points requires a different topology than for
traditional wired jacks, so a network mixing both wireless and wired connections may
need as much or more wire than before—even with fewer jacks. If the 3G or 4G digital
standards (see below for the explanations of standards and terminology) come into place,
which at the moment looks less than certain, and no wired access points are needed on
campus, a wired network still has its advantages.
One advantage is dedicated bandwidth. Wired connections today are generally switched,
which means that each user has access to the full available bandwidth. This means that a
user of a 10 megabit connection has the full 10 megabit bandwidth at his disposal. The
full bandwidth is often necessary for quality multimedia presentations. Wireless solutions
use hub-based technology—the bandwidth is shared. So a hundred wireless users on an
11 megabit connection at an access point will share the 11 megabits. This means slow
access if everyone is accessing the net at once; the result is not adequate for multimedia.
It appears that networked multimedia will rely on wired networks for some time.
Another advantage of wired over wireless is access control and security. Wired
connections have the advantage of physical access control. If a person cannot physically
get to the network jack, he cannot use the wired network. Wired security methods are
standard and proven—it is possible to reach a high level of protection for data and
communications. This is important for university networks with secure information such
as student records and financial data. Wireless security standards have not been settled
and there are many ways that wireless networks can be compromised. Even with the use
of VPN and other security methods that can be adapted to wireless today, access may be
so difficult that network administrators will be reluctant to put them into place. Most
existing wireless networks today lack the most fundamental security
So, while wireless has big advantages for users, it will not spell the doom of wired
There are many confusing references to “wireless” in the media, and I will attempt to
clarify some of the options, protocols, and possibilities in this paper. Among technologies
referred to as wireless are cellular telephones phones, packet radio, remote controls, ham
radios, and wireless Ethernet. This paper will deal with those wireless computer network
methods most likely to be present at a university.
Today’s Standard: IEEE 802.11b
The high speed wireless network world in education today is concentrated around the
IEEE 802.11 protocol. The most used version today is 802.11b, which works in the
2.4GHz2 unlicensed microwave band, and is capable of theoretical speeds of up to 11
megabits per second (mbps)3. High-end access points, with a radio transmitter/receiver
and antenna, have a range of about 300 feet; home access points cover about half that
GHz: GigaHertz, a frequency measure meaning a billion vibrations per second. The frequency refers to
the band where the service resides. Wireless service generally resides on unregulated microwave
frequencies like 2.4 GHz.
Mbps: megabits per second or one million bits of data per second. Kbps is kilobits per second or thousand
bits per second. Kpbs is also referred to as kbaud or kilobaud.
distance. Wireless cards from vendors such as Oronoco and Cisco contain a radio and
antenna able to communicate using “half-duplex” communications, which means that
they either listen or talk but do not do both at the same time.
While theoretical top speed of 802.11b is 11 mbs, the practical speed is somewhat less. If
the signal is weak—depending on the distance and barriers between receiver and
transmitter, the speed is considerably less—as slow as 1 mbs. Actual effective speed is
dependent not only on the signal strength but on factors such as number of concurrent
users, interference and antenna effectiveness. Since the wireless access points provide
shared network connections the bandwidth is split among users, so the more users the
slower the access—an important factor in dense university environments. The antenna
placement is important and newer laptop computers have built in antennae, which- may
help to increase effective speed. Other hindrances are physical obstructions, such as book
storage and mortar walls, that are common at Universities and can slow performance
even more. Even in the best of conditions testers have found themselves limited to about
8 mbs, and users should not expect even that under most conditions.
Security is an issue 802.11b wireless networking. The Wired Equivalent Privacy
encryption (WEP) has many limitations and is not finding much practical use. Users of
802.11b are using what can be termed as temporary security solutions such as VPN
(virtual private networks), while new security protocols are being developed.
Unfortunately at present there is no generally accepted solution.
Practically speaking 802.11b still looks like an excellent choice for university users
browsing the Web, using email and such, but speed considerations make it less than ideal
for video-based online multimedia. As networked multimedia gains in importance it is
expected that universities will look to faster protocols. Of course, universities are
concerned about the security issues and until a broadly accepted solution is worked out,
security may keep some universities from implementing 802.11b. Universities will have
to weigh these considerations as they decide whether or not to implement an 802.11b
Universities do face the reality that more and more students are moving to 802.11b
capable laptop computers and even personal digital assistants (PDAs). The newest
models come with pre-installed antennae and easy-to-install or pre-installed wireless
cards, which make them easy to connect. Also, as 802.11b wireless moves into public
places, homes and offices4, more students will arrive on campus equipped, experienced
and ready to be wireless. These facts will doubtless increase demand for the installation
of a campus-wide 802.11b wireless network. The recommended course for most
Universities today at a minimum is to set up experimental wireless areas using 802.11b.
Starbucks has announced 802.11b connectivity in their coffee shops. There are also neighborhoods where
home and business owners have gotten together and put up a free communal 802.11b service. These are
known as Freenets and are growing. Airports, Libraries, Schools and other public places are putting in
802.11b reinforcing it as the de-facto wireless standard.
On the horizon is the 802.11a standard. This wireless protocol operates in the less
congested 5 GHz range and has a maximum speed of 54 mbit. The transmission range for
the wireless radio equipped access points is considerably less than for 802.11b—
averaging approximately 60 feet. This will make 802.11a more expensive than 802.11b
because of the need for more access points, although manufacturers are working on
higher power equipment to increase the transmission range. The shorter range of 802.11a
will also require different access point placement than with 802.11b; an upgrade from
802.11b to 802.11a will require rewiring. In addition to the transmission distance issues
the new 802.11a is not backwards compatible with 802.11b. Therefore universities that
install the 802.11b equipment today and students and faculty that install 802.11b cards in
computers will have to make a considerable investment to change to 802.11a.
Manufacturers are now gearing up to produce 802.11a chips and equipment, and initially
it is expected to be more expensive than 802.11b. The higher speed does make 802.11a
better suited for multimedia and universities will have to weigh that advantage against the
increased cost. Time will tell whether the 802.11a standard becomes widespread.
Other 802.11 protocols:
Early wireless using 802.11, 2.4 GHz spectrum used a method known as frequency
hopping5 and had transmissions speeds limited to 1.5 to 2 mbit. There remain two types
of networks using the slower speed frequency hoping systems: HomeRF and OpenAir.
While some manufacturers continue to provide compatibility for these standards in their
access points and some non-computer uses of HomeRF6 have emerged, most do not.
802.11b devices, which use spread spectrum7 instead of frequency hopping, are capable
of faster speeds and more reliable connections. As a result remaining HomeRF and
OpenAir wireless networks are being replaced by 802.11b, with no backwards
compatibility. HomeRF is gaining a rebirth in specialty applications such as wireless
stereo and automotive safety systems.
There are also proposed standards for 802.11e and 802.11g. 802.11e is primarily for
voice security and privacy while 802.11g is a proposed way to increase the speed of
802.11b. The equipment for 802.11g would be backwards compatible to 802.11b using
the 2.4 GHz frequency, which is a big plus. On the minus side the 2.4 Ghz frequencies
are much more congested in the United States and Europe than the 5 Ghz ones used for
802.11a. 802.11g would reach a theoretical transmission speed of 20 Mbps plus and is
thought of as a way to get multimedia speeds without having to go to 802.11a. Again,
time will tell if this proposed standard is established and can take hold.
“Frequency hopping works very much like its name implies. It takes the data signal and modulates it with
a carrier signal that hops from frequency to frequency as a function of time over a wide band of
frequencies.” (Jim Geier: “Spread Spectrum: Frequency Hopping vs. Direct Sequence”, May 1999 on
wireless MP3, audio books, traffic reports in cars are new uses. See: http://www.homerf.org.
“Direct sequence spread spectrum combines a data signal at the sending station with a higher data rate bit
The wireless mentioned frequently in the media is not necessarily the 802.11 standard to
which universities are flocking--often referred to as high-speed wireless—but wireless
associated with other technologies. They include cellular phone modem connections,
digital phone modem connections, cellular digital packet data (CDPD), and RIM
(Blackberry and Palm VII. Most of these wireless connection methods are considerably
slower than 802.11b but some are more widespread in usage at present.
One of the earliest wireless computer communications methods was the use of a
modem to connect through a cellular or digital phone. The cellular phone
connection method is the slowest connection method and is a representative of
wireless connections referred to as 1G. Moving to digital wireless phone
connections is a move to 2G, which can reach data speeds of 10 kbps to 19 kbps
with an average digital speed being 14.4 kbps. There are now even stand-alone
modems8 for laptops and PDAs that use 2G digital wireless. The advantage of these
systems is that the digital phone network is widespread and the coverage is
considerable. Another important feature is that the user can connect to his normal
ISP and use his normal email. Unfortunately the speed is slow for data
communication and digital phone companies use minutes as the basis of charging,
which makes them expensive. However, where there is nothing else, digital phone
wireless works and some of our students and faculty may choose it to keep
Next on the horizon are 3G digital phones, but there is no expectation that this
network will be widespread enough to be practical until 2003. Speeds for 3G are
being announced as high as 2 mbps. There is also talk of 4G networks that are even
faster, but they are even farther off. In the meantime digital phone companies have
announced 2.5G, an intermediate standard at speeds up to 144 kbps. Sprint and
Verizon expect to have 2.5G available by the end of 2001. With the spread of
freenets and other public 802.11b networks plus university 802.11b networks there
is talk among experts that 802.11b may end up being the kind of universal network
that 3G and 4G was supposed to be.
Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD)
CDPD is a popular use-everywhere wireless protocol that originated on police
networks and is used by FEDEX for package tracking. It is attached to cellular
networks, but being packet data it is charged by the byte instead of by the minute.
CDPD should be cheaper overall for many users and there are rate plans allowing
unlimited usage. The advertised speed of CDPD is 19.2kbps, but tests show that the
actual speed is really 4kbps and users report that CDPD is very slow to use and is
The Sierra Wireless Aircard 510 is the first one, which works without a phone.
problematic for users in motion. A common complaint is dropped connections.
Still, CDPD is available many places and can be cheaper than other phone based
technologies. CDPD is another system that lets users connect to their own email
and computer systems on the net.
The Ricochet was a proprietary private network could reach speeds of up to
128kbps and was available in many major cities. This was the highest bandwidth
Users reported that they could maintain an almost uninterrupted connection on the
Amtrak Northeast corridor trains, a sign that the network was stable where it is
available. Unfortunately Metrocom, the main Ricochet provider, which made an
enormous investment in infrastructure, went into receivership and shut down all
services. The Ricochet experience raises doubts about the viability of proprietary
solutions as standards emerge.
RIM (Research in Motion) Blackberry and Palm VII
RIM devices, known as BlackBerry are primarily for email. RIM has a widespread
network catering to business users, and the monthly charges are high. The speeds
are slow: the Mobitex network, a RIM provider, reports 9.8 kbps; DataTAC,
another RIM provider, 19.2 kbps. The Palm VII also uses these networks and a
similar technology. These speeds are adequate for email, currently the main
Internet activity of users of RIM devices. Currently United States users of this
network are required to use the RIM or Palm email system and must forward their
messages from other systems. One advantage of this solution is end-to-end
encryption of all messages, which gives users real security. This is possible because
the RIM/PalmVII provider controls email access. Because of its focus on corporate
email users and limited Internet access this system may not be of great interest to
Bluetooth is a short-range wireless protocol that is emerging from the digital phone
world. It operates in the 2.4 GHz frequency range with speeds as high as 728 kbps.
Promoters of Bluetooth claim that it will eliminate connection cables for items such as
printers, cameras, network routers, and phones. The receivers are extremely small, the
size of a match head, and have the potential to be part of many small devices. The hope is
to have a phone that connects to the home phone wired network (including fax)
wirelessly via Bluetooth and connects to the digital network outside the home as well.
This would eliminate the need for multiple phones and wires. Computer devices could
also be connected to peripherals in a wireless, universal way.
Bluetooth has been slow to reach practical usage. There are few Bluetooth devices today,
but there are many in planning by companies such as Ericsson, Nokia, IBM, Toshiba,
Intel, 3Com, Motorola, Lucent Technologies and Microsoft. Despite the many interested
parties it is too early to know if Bluetooth will have the impact that its supporters say it
PDAs and Wireless
Today there are many advertisements and catalogs touting wireless connectivity for
PDAs. Some of the PDA solutions have been noted above. RIM Blackberry and PalmVII
are proprietary solutions that are popular in corporate America. The CDPD solutions such
as Omnisky work on PDAs and are better suited to slower PDAs than to speedy laptops.
Phones with web capabilities have not taken off because of their small screens and
extreme slowness. The integrated Palm-phone devices are interesting, but the phone
based Internet access is limited and slow as well. The really important wireless solution
for PDAs at universities is 802.11b.
Currently 802.11b for PDAs requires a PCMCIA or Compact Flash card adapter. Several
handhelds using Microsoft’s PocketPC and a 206 MHz processor have PCMCIA or
Compact Flash capability. The Compaq IPAQ, with an add-on PCMCIA or Compact
Flash sled; the HP Jornada, with a built in Compact Flash slot; and the @migo, with a
built in PCMCIA slot, are three examples. The systems work well for web browsing and
email and are particularly popular because of their easy-to-read, bright color screens.
Some students have them already and we will probably see many more as wireless
networks come up. With a wireless equipped PDA students would have a small,
relatively lightweight device with which they could follow email, calendars, course
assignments and other web activity wherever they were in the wireless space. The
disadvantages of the current PCMCIA wireless card equipped PDAs are the weight--
nearly a pound in some cases--and battery life of only a few hours. There is also an
802.11b module from Xircom for the Handspring Visor, but it uses the proprietary
Springboard form factor unavailable in other PalmOS devices. Experience using the
Handspring Xircom module 802.11b indicates the shortcomings of current Palm OS
devices. Their 33 MHz processors are, in general, too slow to make use of web
possibilities, even when color screens make them easy to read. For this reason the Palm
development community is looking at building devices using the type of 200MHz plus
chips in PocketPC devices.
The Secure Digital (SD) wireless cards of the future and the new Compact Flash (CF)
802.11b wireless cards should open wireless access to many more devices with built in
SD or CF capability such as the Palm 500 series and the Palm-based HandEra. SD and
CF cards use less power than PCMCIA based cards, which reduces the need for heavy
batteries and increases battery life and could make real wireless PDA’s popular among
Wireless is in an exciting stage of development at many universities. Nearly every one
has a plan or project to provide wireless connectivity to some segment of campus.
802.11b is the current standard of choice for universities. While other standards may
appear more widespread (cdpd or digital phone) or faster (802.11a), the only practical
choice for the kind of network use prevalent at universities today is 802.11b. Some
universities are waiting for 802.11a devices before making a large commitment to
wireless, and this may be a wise move. Such a wait, however, will delay wireless
implementation on a campus for at least a year, and raise compatibility issues with
devices already deployed. The user community at such universities may end up
demanding wireless 802.11b anyway, especially if the wait is over a year. As a result of
the movement of 802.11b to the de-facto practical wireless standard, it we should expect
widespread university deployment of 802.11b within the next year.
1. Blackwell, Gerry, “Wireless Freenets Put Down Roots”, 802.11 Insights, July, 17,
2. Flickenger, Rob 802.11b Tips, Tricks and Facts on http://www.oreillynet.com ,
3. Gray, Douglas, “Windows Media Gets Read for 3G Networks”, pcworld.com,
May 23, 2001.
4. Geier, Jim, “Spread Spectrum: Frequency Hopping vs. Direct Sequence”, May
5. Lui, Bob, “IEEE Meeting Ends Again Without Decision on 802.11g”, July 13,
6. Moskowitz, Robert, “Wireless Risks”, Network Computing, May 14, 2001 (online
7. Spring, Tom, “Hurry Up and Wait for Speedy Wireless Nets”, pcworld.com,
March 07, 2001.
8. “IMT—2000 (3G) Core—Bank”, GSM World, June 13, 2001,
9. “Bluetooth Resource Center”, palowireless.com,
10. RIM Technical Specifications: