In the final post in our series that has explored wireless technology trends on college and university campuses, we examine the strategies and technologies that will emerge both near-term and further out to address the “data tsunami“.
Higher Education represents what we believe to be one of the most challenging wireless environments.
In our first post, we introduced what is currently the most prolific wireless user: students who’ve grown up in the connected world; who possess multiple wireless devices; and don’t consider bandwidth limitations an option.
The next post focused on university IT Departments that have the unenviable challenge of meeting the wireless expectations of students while operating within shrinking budgets.
Our third post reintroduced Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) which have been deployed on campuses for over 10 years but have become pivotal in recent years to provide capacity for overburdened macro networks as well as coverage for public-safety services. We also identified a funding conundrum which often leaves student dormitories and other buildings unfunded in favor of stadiums and hospitals.
Then in our fourth post, we explored the role of Wi-Fi in the “toolkit” approach to enabling the heterogeneous network (Het-Net).
Convergence and Fiber Networks
Networks are evolving to handle more data; faster, and more perfectly. They will continue to change rapidly – demand on the infrastructure depends on it.
Two key trends in campus technology include convergence and fiber networks.
Increasingly DAS networks will be called upon to support both cellular and public-safety services. The fledgling in-building public-safety market of today is similar to the early days of neutral-host cellular DAS, when building owners insisted on a single platform, as opposed to having three systems installed by three different shareholders.
Meanwhile, Gigabit Ethernet fiber multiplexing solutions will increasingly be deployed to solve fiber exhaustion.
Demand for throughput is being driven by the explosion in Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices, and the emergence of bandwidth-intensive cloud-based services, social networking, advanced collaboration and medical applications. Data throughput and speed are typically constrained by the point-to-point fiber optic links that connect campus buildings.
Fiber multiplexing solutions use wavelength divisional technologies to channelize fiber strands – increasing the capacity of existing fiber deployments without the need to install or lease costly new fiber strands.
As an example, a single strand of fiber can deliver multiple wavelength channels each running symmetrically at 1Gbps up and down stream. This represents significant CAPEX and OPEX savings.
Shift to Fiber and Digital DAS
Although copper cabling (CAT 5 & 6) has long been the standard, over time, the industry will shift to a fiber infrastructure to meet throughput requirements.
Put simply, today’s copper may not be high enough quality to support 1GE speeds. Further, the physical medium of copper is unable to support higher data rates of 10 GE.
Fiber infrastructure is physically smaller and lighter than copper, and is easily installed by technicians. Most importantly, fiber delivers almost unlimited room for future bandwidth expansion.
As a result, DAS will go digital.
Following the trends of convergence of services and the continued emergence of fiber, Radio Frequency (RF) and Internet Protocol (IP) will converge onto a single, digital architecture.
The platform will enable plug-in and support for cellular and public-safety communications, Wi-Fi services and other applications such as RFID, building automation, security and more.
We predict this infrastructure to similarly enable fiber-to-the-desktop.
Ultimately, these next-generation networks will be smarter and more flexible. They’ll handle increased data, enable better use of network resources, and scale capacity – up or down based upon use and need during peak and off-peak times.
At the core will be intelligent backhaul to centralize network management and lower operational expenditures.
This will be essential for higher education campuses.
How Long Will This Take?
Some of these trends may reach fruition by year’s end; others, currently under development, will be several years in the making.
No one fully knows what a good balanced network looks like.
We expect to see new technology trends develop at a rate of at least one new trend every two years, as demand – and solutions to meet demand – continue to grow and evolve.
The problems facing higher education campuses will only grow as they continue to struggle with disparate networks they don’t control, and unlicensed frequencies they cannot maximize or that do not have a clear ROI.
The urgent need to provide clear communication for public safety (hear from public safety experts here, here, here and here) and the exponential growth of the demand for capacity means that technology solutions will need to be consolidated offerings bringing multiple networks together.
They can be monetized and must provide unfettered access for students, employees, safety personnel, and the general public.
To be sure, the years ahead are certainly going to be interesting.
What are the key challenges and trends you are observing?
Note: A version of this article was originally published in 2013 Fall ACUTA Journal.