Walk around St. John's University in New York and you'll likely see students stretched out on benches and lawns with laptop computers accessing the Internet. While such a sight might not look unusual in any Starbucks or Borders bookstore, the scene at St. John's was unimaginable until the current school year. And moving forward, students surfing the Web anywhere on campus will be as commonplace as teen-agers talking on cell phones in the mall.
That's because the university has invested millions of dollars to give an IBM ThinkPad computer based on Intel's Centrino mobile processor to every incoming member of its freshman class, as well as faculty and teaching staff, with access to the university's new secure Wi-Fi network, which is available virtually anywhere on its 105-acre campus. St. John's is also rolling out Wi-Fi hot spots to satellite campuses in Staten Island, N.Y.; Manhattan; Oakdale, L.I.; and Rome, Italy. While distributing laptops to new students is not unheard of, you'd be hard-pressed to find many universities that have hot spots from every point of their campuses.
"We've put some wireless infrastructure in other schools, but no other school has done it this broad and this deep," says John Riconda, CEO of Contemporary Computer Services (CCSI), a Bohemia, N.Y.-based Cisco VAR that has completed most of the five-month project on St. John's main campus. "Every location in the university has coverage from the classrooms and even the corridors. There are really no dead zones."
Solution providers with expertise integrating Wi-Fi infrastructures or with ties to higher-education institutions should listen and learn: The story of St. John's is one of a university at the forefront of what promises to be a growing trend on college campuses.
"Once one school does it in an area, the other ones feel obligated to follow suit," Riconda says. "No one wants to be behind the times."
Founded in 1870, St. John's is a Vincentian university that extols the values of St. Vincent de Paul, the Patron Saint of Christian charity. Among many of St. Vincent's values was that academic study be a direct, shared experience, and one dedicated to helping those less fortunate. Even though St. John's is a private university with 14,000 undergraduates and 4,000 students in its graduate and law schools, not all students had the financial means to purchase new systems based on current standards--hence the recent decision to equip every new freshman with a ThinkPad.
"We feel it's important to make sure our students have equal access to technology," said Joseph Tufano, St. John's executive director and CIO, during a recent visit to his office.
The plan to make wireless ubiquitous throughout St. John's extends beyond the desire to attract students and give them access to the Web on the fly. The university's administration jumped on the plan last spring for a number of reasons; key was improving the educational experience by empowering professors and students alike to access any form of content.
The wireless backbone--based on Cisco's new Wireless LAN Solution Engine (WLSE 2.5) that's part of its Structured Wireless-Aware Network (SWAN)--also is intended to improve safety by giving security personnel access to data. In addition, the university is planning to deploy digital CCD security cameras that will ride on St. John's Cisco Gibabit Ethernet backbone that CCSI deployed in the year preceding the wireless implementation.
When the board first gave the green light to making the investment, the university put out an RFP to Alcatel, Avaya, Cisco and Nortel, according to Chris Fevola, a senior manager with BearingPoint, which has worked with St. John's for many years and helped Tufano's team select the technology that would be best-suited to its environment. Cisco and partner CCSI appeared to have had an edge because they had built the Gigabit Ethernet backbone for St. John's in 2002. But because the backbone was standards-based, as were the bidders' wireless solutions, all players were in the running, Tufano says.
Before CCSI could win the business, Cisco had to come out on top first. Tufano says the RFP was put out to the vendors to compete for with the plan of choosing an implementation partner afterward. The feeling was that was the best way to measure the different options on a level playing field. "I don't think it would have been fair if I'm dealing with a VAR vs. a manufacturer," Tufano says.
Price was important, but it wasn't the deciding factor. "Obviously, we didn't want to go with the most expensive, but we really were looking at the combination of experience, commitment, service and functionality," Tufano says.
Still, all things being equal, it appears the attention given to St. John's by both CCSI and Cisco were key variables in winning the wireless infrastructure business. Cisco reps visit St. John's on a weekly basis, and CCSI's personnel are key to implementing and supporting the environment. "What's good about them is they know us," Tufano says. "And a number of their people know us. They know what we're trying to do. They understand the big picture here at St. John's."
That St. John's is embarking on such an effort is noteworthy not only because it's so new but because it will surely be a novelty for a short period of time. In the New York City area alone, there are scores of college and university campuses--many of which will waste little time in trying to catch up; Riconda says he has already received work from other schools, such as the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
"[St. John's is] clearly in the top 1 percent to 2 percent of universities and colleges that are doing this stuff," Fevola adds.