Stephen Krewson | It's the network (or lack thereof)

The lack of reliable wireless connectivity on campus is unacceptable and should be immediately addressed

· November 30, 2007, 5:00 am

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There are certain things you will never read if you are a student here. These include: "Penn professor acquitted in murder trial," "Unidentified woman ambushed with flowers outside Wizzards," and "Security guard exposes his amazing personality." Trust me, you just won't.

It is inevitable, however, that you will come across at least one of the following sentences in your time at Penn: "Can I see some ID, please?" "Is that for here or to go?" and "The wireless network has limited or no connectivity."

That last one is particularly prevalent among people who possess both laptops and legs. The University operates a number of wireless networks to service those who wish to combine productivity with mobility. Unfortunately, the performance of these networks often leaves users frustrated and does a disservice to Penn's reputation as a peer-leading institution.

If the Internet, as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-etard) suggested, is a series of tubes, then wireless is more like a bunch of speakers spread out over an area, all hooked up to a central stereo system. Some people are close to the speakers and can hear the song well; they have good connections. Some have the sound muffled by thick walls; others are so far away they can't hear anything at all.

In my (rather dumb) analogy, these are the students who suffer from the placement and scarcity of wireless access points on campus. According to Information Systems & Computing, about 60 percent of Penn's campus is covered by one of the four school-operated networks: AirPennNet, WirelessPennNet, AirSAS and AirSEAS.

Mike Palladino, associate vice president of Networking & Telecommunications for ISC, told me that "Penn compares with the upper 75 percent of universities with coverage."

In other words, we're barely above the bottom quartile. Part of the problem is that all these networks developed separately with different technologies.

As Palladino noted, "One of the main disadvantages of having multiple wireless LANs is user experience may change when moving from one wireless network to another on campus."

For instance, my writing seminar meets in a Williams Hall classroom, which gets only a slight signal from the AirSAS network. When several students needed to e-mail a diagnostic assignment to the professor, they couldn't, since AirSAS, unlike AirPennNet, requires device registration.

Wireless users face a confusing array of options. In addition to Wharton's Whnowire and off-campus-based LANs, there are other, more mysterious networks such as "linksys," which offers the strongest and most reliable signal in my Harrison room.

But there are hidden dangers, as Palladino pointed out: "None of Penn's officially operated networks currently use that equipment or name, so it is an unauthorized or rogue wireless access point. ... We definitely advise against using it."

I find this problematic since I often lose connection when using AirPennNet in my room. It's odd that that the best wireless option in the middle of a college campus is a rogue network not even operated by the school at all.

I'm not alone in experiencing these difficulties. One source with considerable experience in Penn computing described the wireless architecture in his College House as being "under-engineered in an over-engineered building; there are not enough access points."

The fact remains that Penn is simply not committed to superior wireless networking in the short-term. Furthermore, the mechanisms put in place to address wireless problems are ineffective at best. My source informed me that "Penn's information systems suffer from bureaucracy . communication between ResComp and ISC is confusing and inhibits response to and improvement of shortcomings in the wireless networks."

To be fair, my experiences with Penn Computing have been largely positive. The service and support structures - especially the ITAs - are smart and helpful.

This only highlights the weaknesses of the wireless networks. More resources need to be directed to achieving the goal of convergence. "We are moving towards one network and one authentication approach," said Palladino. "We will also be providing a second network for Penn visitors which will allow them to connect on a temporary basis . We also are working towards full campus coverage in the future."

These long term objectives should be a priority for a leading university in the information age. We can't settle for three-fifths of a network.

Stephen Krewson is a College sophomore from Schenectady, NY. His e-mail is krewson@dailypennsylvanian.com. The Parthian Shot appears on Fridays.

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