Cutting the Cord

At the University of Hawaii, students can really cut loose … of their fixed Internet connections

July, 2003

During most of Tyson Yamada’s college years at the University of Hawaii, it was almost a chore to access the Internet on the Manoa campus. The computer labs were often too crowded. And there were few spots where students could plug their laptops into the campus’s wired network.

About a year and a half ago, the university began rolling out Wi-Fi technology on campus. Suddenly, accessing the Internet became much more convenient for Yamada, as well as for the rest of the student body. The new infrastructure allows access without the use of wires, cables or fixed connections. Best of all, students and staff can log on from many common-use areas throughout the campus, including cafeterias, libraries and most outdoor mall areas.

“Last semester, I logged on a lot in between classes to do some school work, e-mail, browse the Web,” Yamada says. “It’s so much more convenient.”

Wi-Fi stands for Wireless Fidelity, which is based on IEEE 802.11b technology. But don’t let the geekspeak intimidate you. It’s less complicated than it sounds, at least for university users. They need only three things to access the Wi-Fi network: a laptop, a wireless card (which cost around $50) and a login and password.

For UH Manoa’s IT department, however, it’s a bit more intricate. Wi-Fi operates on a frequency reserved for radio devices. Throughout the campus, the department has set up more than 75 access point routers (plugged into the existing wired network) that basically serve as transmitters. Wireless cards, which are either built in or can be inserted into laptops, act as receivers.

The Wi-Fi network can achieve speeds up to 11 megabits per second (Mbps). In typical situations, it will average between 2 Mbps to 5 Mbps, comparable to some cable modem speeds. “Transfer speeds will be degraded by the number of people using the network, your distance from an access point,” says Garret Yoshimi, UH telecommunications manager. “By all means, though, it’s more than adequate for casual use, e-mail and light Web surfing.”

UH Manoa has joined a growing number of Mainland colleges with some type of wireless network. Wi-Fi is quickly catching on outside of school walls, as well. “Hotspots,” or public areas where laptop users can access a wireless network, have popped up across in the country, in places such as airports, coffee shops, convention centers and hotels. In fact, research firm Gartner Inc. predicts the number of Wi-Fi users in North America will grow tenfold between 2003 to 2007, reaching 31 million.

Wi-Fi’s mainstream acceptance made it the obvious choice for UH Manoa’s IT department. “[That] translates into excellent choice and availability of equipment,” Yoshimi says. “Decent adoption of the technology also means that manufacturers will be inclined to invest in product development, including at least attempting to ensure that the imbedded base will be upwards compatible with future products.”

Earlier this year, UH Manoa received a $70,000 technology grant from Pepsi Bottling Group-Hawaii. The university applied half of the grant to “lighting up” its Campus Center, the heart of student activity on campus, with Wi-Fi access.

Yoshimi emphasizes that the Wi-Fi system works with the UH Manoa’s existing wired infrastructure. “A lot of people ask if Wi-Fi is a replacement for wired — absolutely not,” he says. “The wired network has more capability, more security. It can give you up to 100 Mbps, a significantly higher speed than the wireless network.” The university is continually looking at ways to boost security for the wireless network, Yoshimi says.

The department doesn’t track the number of students using the new system, but they can count Tyson Yamada as one of its fans. The marketing major was a frequent user up until his graduation in May. A few days after the commencement ceremony, he installed a Wi-Fi access point in his parents’ Kaimuki home, from which they also run their small business.

“It’s a specialty-advertising business, so now they can basically work from computers wherever they are in the house, wherever they want,” Yamada says. “It’s a concept I got from UH.”

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