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ACUTA Conference Takeaways: The Conundrum of Delivering DAS in Higher Education

By Mike Collado
May 3rd, 2012

Is there any other industry vertical where wireless users are more bleeding edge than in Higher Education?

That’s the reality that attendees at the ACUTA 41st Annual Conference & Exhibition are facing. These IT leader have the unenviable challenge of delivering a wireless network for uber-connected students who expect coverage and capacity and seamless connectivity as they move among dorm, dining hall, classroom, library, stadium and outdoor campus spaces.

Students are carrying a full arsenal of wireless devices on campus – smartphones, tablets, gaming PSPs and notebooks. Although the opening keynote suggested the average student has 1.2 wireless devices, that number is likely way off. An attendee shared that next fall, his university would issue tablets to incoming students. And another attendee – a self-proclaimed geek who carries two smartphones and both an iPad and Android tablet – said that students on her campus are probably toting at least three wireless devices.

Oh, and they’re using bandwidth. A lot of bandwidth. That’s because students are texting, using social networks, engaging in video chat, streaming videos and a whole lot more.

To illustrate, AT&T cited in a presentation that 50% of their traffic is generated by smartphone applications and that they have seen a 20,000% increase in data traffic!

Are students using voice? Nope. Our friend, Tracy Ford 0f the DAS Forum, says the only way she can reach her kids is via SMS.

So the wireless networks on higher-ed campuses are being maxed out. Which is why Colleges and Universities are engaging Wireless Service Providers (WSPs), Integrators and Consultants to find solutions that include WiFi and Distributed Antenna System (DAS) network elements.

We Want It All, But We Don’t Want To Pay For It

The first question asked in one of the DAS-specific presentations at the ACUTA conference was, “Who funds it?”

Nearly all attendees said they expect someone else to pay for the DAS. And the two DAS presentations by AT&T and Tom Zeller (Building a Large-Scale Campus DAS) reinforced this model.

But is this a realistic expectation? And are these DAS models really “free”?

Attendees say they don’t want to be on the hook to pay for DAS. During a Q&A exchange, an attendee remarked, “The carriers beat you down (when it comes to negotiating for improved coverage and capacity on campus).” Translation: the WSPs should pay.

Others were more diplomatic, sharing that there simply isn’t budget: “It is unlikely that universities have millions lying around.”

So, understandably, overtures whereby the University doesn’t have to pay for the DAS – and even receive a revenue stream – sound good to CIOs.

Still, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the DAS projects funded by a third party.

Such as, who is responsible for the backhaul of all that data?

IU had already budgeted to pull fiber (although they wound up doubling the fiber count) so they could handle the requirement. But others laughed nervously knowing their fiber capacity couldn’t handle the traffic.

Another issue is who is responsible for bringing the carriers on board?

Tom Zeller at IU questioned why the legal contract negotiations took so long just to put a project contract in-place; imagine the timeframe to pull two or three WPSs on the DAS? His project is targeted to be “live” by the start of the new school year. Will it go as planned?

Similarly, others wondered whether the build-out would even commence without a commitment from the carriers.

Where To Begin?

The next question attendees asked was, “How do we write an RFP?”

Which is understandable, because these same departments are responding to a host of technology requirements to ensure their schools keep pace with other institutions and learning techniques. So is it realistic in a challenging economy for a university to employ a DAS expert?

Many of the attendees confessed to having a great deal of agita about making a mistake in choosing a DAS that would cost their school money by delivering an inadequate solution. One lamented that his department has held on to what was considered to be a comprehensive RFP for fear that technology requirements will soon change and render it incomplete.

So some have resorted to making “deals” to deploy small projects such as a single building to gain experience.

Others, such as IU’s Tom Zeller, reached out to other institutions that have completed an RFP or deployment to glean best practices.

Attendees were delighted to learn during a luncheon which paired attendees seeking certain solutions together that the DAS Forum publishes resources that provide guidance for writing and issuing an RFP.

A Conundrum

The most bleeding edge wireless users. Reduced technology budgets.

Last year, SOLiD rolled out a Shared DAS Program that may address requirements and place ownership not in the hands of the venue owner. This model enables the University to own the DAS, the WSPs pay their share to be on the DAS and the Integrators install and manage it.

So, industry experts, what do you think?

Specifically, what advice and counsel would give the attendees of ACUTA for solving the problem of coverage and capacity on their respective campuses?

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