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Seneca College brings its campus Wi-Fi back to school

Wi-Fi has gone back to school. Seneca College deployed a new Wi-Fi system from Aruba Networks to support its tens of thousands of students, faculty and plentiful devices.

After years of dealing with dead zones, lagging Wi-Fi connections and subpar roaming capabilities, Toronto-based Seneca College decided it was time for a change.

Seneca's growing student population -- 30,000 full-time and 71,000 part-time students -- as well as its 10 campuses and evolving curriculum required Wi-Fi that was strong enough to cover distances and support thousands of different devices.

Seneca's existing campus Wi-Fi, however, had limited bandwidth and throughput, didn't support 802.11ac-based devices and lacked Wi-Fi integration throughout all campuses, according to Hassan Assiri, director of infrastructure services at Seneca College. Additionally, Seneca's centralized IT staff struggled to manage a network that required localized management at each campus.

To diminish these issues, the college opted to install a new campus Wi-Fi system that supports 802.11ax. Seneca deployed a range of services from Aruba Networks, including access points (APs), Mobility Controllers for on-premises managed wireless LANs, ClearPass for security, AirWave for network management and Meridian for location-based services.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

What were your goals for this campus Wi-Fi deployment?

Hassan Assiri: We're making many changes in the way we deliver our courses. It's part of the evolution of how the students learn, how we want to teach and transfer knowledge to them, and how the students collaborate among themselves. We're making changes to the curriculum to engage students in activities outside of the classroom, as well, so it's not limited to the classroom's four walls.

The whole idea behind the change was to build infrastructure that would allow those kinds of activities to flourish. We wanted to make sure students, faculty and professors weren't tethered to a specific location. They're mobile. They can go wherever they want and collaborate in any way that's conducive to course delivery and the learning process.

That was the whole reason why we started to think about the puzzle pieces we needed to achieve our objectives. We did an assessment of our entire network. As a result, we upgraded our wired network to make sure we have the fastest network and can bring it to all the end devices.

The other puzzle piece was the Wi-Fi. When we checked our Wi-Fi usage, we noticed a lot of folks coming on premises with mobile devices. We have more courses with bring your own device as a core component of teaching or learning equipment. We recommend students bring a mobile device as part of their supplies -- be it a phone, laptop, tablet or what have you. And the number of users has grown exponentially. Right now, we have over 35,000 devices every day, and that number keeps growing.

So, we wanted to make sure the Wi-Fi platform had the capacity and capability to support the increasing number of users. That's why we started talking to different vendors, eventually landing on Aruba products.

What was the deployment process?

Assiri: We deployed at our most populous campus first to make sure its needs were being taken care of. We then spread the Wi-Fi to the remaining nine campuses. We wanted the user experience to be universal and identical, regardless of the campus involved. We have employees and students that move between campuses, so we wanted to ensure they have the same experience at their home campus and others.

Deploying the campus Wi-Fi allowed us to provide additional services. The APs we deployed have built-in beacons, so we decided create digital wayfinding. We worked with Aruba Meridian to create a wayfinding application -- we call it Seneca Navigate. It's available on Apple and Android, so people can download and use that to navigate through our campuses. All those things are built on top of our Wi-Fi system, as are all the beacons we installed throughout the campuses.

As part of the new system, we offer a guest network, which we did not offer before. Now, anybody can walk into our campus and use the guest network to connect to the portal by providing their personal email address and logging into our network. Obviously, we put them in a different environment, and we have different policies associated to that network.

We're also part of a consortium called eduroam. So, now, any visiting professors or students from other colleges or universities that are part of that consortium can come to Seneca and use their home university or college credentials to log into our Wi-Fi. That's something we couldn't offer before.

What challenges did you face in this deployment?

Assiri: I would be lying if I said there were no challenges. Part of the challenge was, how do we run two different environments at the same time? We couldn't just shut down a location and install a new one.

Our challenges were that we had two different, distinct Wi-Fi platforms running at the same time. How are we going to manage that? How are we going to manage user expectations? And how are we going to migrate the user from the old platform to the new? The way we managed the old system and how we now manage the new one have changed quite a bit.

What improvements do you still hope to make?

Assiri: We have our own digital strategy that highlights what we'll try to achieve in the next few years. We have a roadmap that includes how we're going to provide an environment where our students and faculty can flourish.

We're also working on an enterprise mobility management strategy to manage the mobile devices and bring-your-own devices. We'll integrate that with our Wi-Fi system, as well. We have done a lot, and we have a lot more to do.

Why do you think vendors are targeting colleges with these campus Wi-Fi infrastructures?

Assiri: We're an educational institution, and this is a good opportunity for vendors to come and expose their services to students. I mean, these are people eventually going out there to get a job. So, it's not just installing the infrastructure, but we also bring the technology into the classroom, expose the students to it and, when they graduate, they can speak to those services more intelligently.

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