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Concrete Success: Achieving Great Wireless in a Challenging Physical Infrastructure

Free High Speed Wireless is an attractive offer for students in search of housing. With nearby off-campus apartments advertising free Wi-Fi, Texas A&M University at Kingsville (TAMUK) realized their on-campus residence halls needed a refresh.

Concrete walls presented a challenge

TAMUK is situated along the Gulf Coast where the threat of hurricanes has influenced the campus infrastructure. Much of the campus is constructed with concrete walls to withstand winds of 111 – 155 mph that are common with hurricanes. But concrete poses a major obstacle for designing a wireless network.

The walls inhibited the wireless signal and prevented a consistent connection to the network. Many students installed their personal access point in their room, hoping to attain better results. However, this introduced additional RF interference with the existing access points as well as security concerns as these access points often included an integrated DHCP server.
Although TAMUK staff attempted to replace the outdated access points, their attempts did little as students continued to experience a degraded connection. As the addition of new cabling was financially prohibitive and nearly impossible without extensive construction, TAMUK sought Computer Solutions and Cisco for advice on how to effectively design and deploy a robust wireless network.

A proof of concept for a creative solution

Computer Solutions began by assessing the existing infrastructure within each building through a detailed wireless site survey to determine optimal RF propagation and access point placement. We determined the switching infrastructure was in need of an overhaul to support the diverse types of traffic traveling over the network. Though skeptical, TAMUK was willing to move forward with a proof of concept implementation in Martin Hall, allowing Computer Solutions an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of our design in the dormitory with the most problems.

We installed a Cisco Catalyst 4500-X distribution switch between the residence hall and the network core as well as Cisco Catalyst 3850 switches in the existing telecommunications closest with redundant 10-Gb links to the distribution layer. We created new IP schemes to segment each dorm as they were migrated into the design. For wireless, we installed a Cisco 8500 series wireless controller, along with Cisco Prime Lifecycle and Assurance. Cisco’s Aironet 702W access points—built for the hospitality industry—were installed in each dorm room along existing horizontal cabling in order to leverage the integrated downlink switch port functionality on the access point thereby providing access to both the wireless and hardline networks. Common rooms were fitted with multiple Cisco Aironet 3702 access points which were situated to accommodate the estimated wireless node count for any given area.

Outstanding results

Over the next two weeks, the solution was tested in a live environment. Following testing, general surveys were taken from residents to assess the effectiveness of the design. The end-user experience was remarkable. The new network maintained a consistent, fast connection and residents provided glowing compliments. The introduction of Cisco Prime provided enhanced visibility into the wired and wireless environments. With instant access to coverage heat maps, application visibility/control, and rouge detection, TAMUK could effectively monitor the performance of their wireless network and mitigate threats as they occur.

Delighted by the dramatic changes, TAMUK requested further deployment throughout all the campus dormitories. The migration began in the fall of 2015, and is still in progress. To date, Computer Solutions has assisted TAMUK in completing three residence halls, installing over 670 access points and is on track to complete two more halls during the summer months of 2016. Our work at TAMUK attests to our ability to develop innovative solutions surpass our client’s expectations to deliver exceptional results.