“Can you hear me now?” may not have been their mantra, but nonetheless, it was the nature of the problem that faced one group of students at Okefenokee Technical College in early November 2011. OTC computer information systems instructor Derrell Harris charged his “Fundamentals of Wireless LANs” class with determining the current state of OTC’s Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) and making the necessary changes to meet current and future wireless needs and expectations. During the course of the project and to their dismay, classmates Eric Baldwin, Robert Boland, Joshua Boyett, Jared Griffin, William Hand, David Jordan, Brandon King, Caleb Manac, and Jonathon Wright determined that OTC’s WLAN, which was installed in early 2010, had 35-40% distribution. When questioned about the system’s integrity, Harris explained, “Technology and business needs change so quickly that even properly designed WLANs are said to become inadequate within 18 months after deployment.”
Initially, and in concert with OTC’s IT department, Harris’s students conducted a wireless site survey. Geoff Catron, a TCSG network engineer, provided invaluable assistance. Proper survey tactics were stressed, and a top enterprise tool, AirMagnet Survey, was utilized. Once structural blueprints were uploaded to AirMagnet, students walked a software-directed path encompassing the OTC campus. Wireless signals were then taken from the perimeter and center of the hallways, rooms, parking lots, and any other space where one might desire to access the WLAN.
Students learned that trouble areas may result from many types of interference. In fact, two weeks into the analysis, it was noted how a microwave oven in operation disrupted wireless signals, disabling connectivity with laptops and smartphones. Interestingly, cordless phones, wireless keyboards and mice, and some instructor-rigged Access Points (APs) were also identified as culprits.
Along with issues such as these, additional considerations were made when planning the new network. For instance, students gave considerable attention to the future use of IP-based security devices, such as cameras, online student material, and an eventual switch to Voice over IP (VoIP) phones. Another consideration necessary for a successful completion was a wireless network that would encompass the full campus (three buildings) and the parking lot.
As the fourth week of the project came to fruition, staff, faculty, and student input was evaluated, and the system was upgraded. Some modifications were as simple as repositioning an AP from a vertical to a horizontal position. Most were more painstaking. One aspect of the endeavor that was pain free was the effect the project had on OTC’s budget – what would have cost the college 10 - 15 thousand dollars, resulted in no cost at all.
Today, thanks to the 2011 CIST 2114 WLAN class at OTC, 90-95% of the college has connectivity, and there are no more strains of “Can you hear me now?” or mutterings of a lost laptop connection. Kudos to Mr. Derrell Harris, the OTC 2012 Rick Perkins Award Winner, for providing students with a challenging assignment to encourage critical thinking, foster a sense of learning community, and empower students as learners. Congratulations to the class for taking the assignment to its highest level and accomplishing the goals. Finally, thank you, students, for using knowledge and skills learned at OTC to give back to the college.
OTC computer information systems instructor Derrell Harris (right) observes students as they record results of a survey.