Something in the Air
Somerville College, The University of Oxford, is proud of its ‘firsts’. Founded in 1879 and women only until 1994, the College has produced the UK’s only woman to win a Nobel prize (Dorothy Hogdkin) and the first female prime ministers of the UK (Margaret Thatcher) and India (Indira Gandhi). Now, using Aerohive’s controller-less technology, Somerville hopes to continue its history of innovation and become the first Oxford College to offer blanket wireless Internet coverage across its whole site. Speaking to University Business, Chris Bamber, Somerville College’s IT systems manager, talks about the project and the future of higher education wireless coverage.
Q. Can you explain the project?
A. As an Oxford College we are always looking at the network, student facilities and the way forward. One of the requirements that came up time and time again is offering students and staff wireless Internet access across the whole of the College site. All the students that we have here are on laptops now and are used to having wireless at home so why, when they come to university, should they only be able to have wired Internet in their rooms and not access to a wireless network.
Q. How did the project come about?
A. We had a change of Principal last year. Dame Fiona Caldicott retired and Alice Prochaska was elected. Alice’s previous position was at Yale University and American’s are more akin to having satellite WiFi than we are in the UK. When discussing where we were going with the network and what we needed to look at to support it, one of the questions we were asked a lot is ‘why isn’t there WiFi [at Somerville].’ Looking at the emerging technologies, certainly with the emergence of tablets such as the iPad and with more and more students turning up to university with them, the Committee took a bold step in looking at that sort of access. That initiated the process where IT thought: “yes we can support this, so let’s go out and see what we can do with what technology is available.” By doing this we put ourselves ahead, certainly in The University of Oxford, and probably ahead of other universities.
Q. How do you expect other colleges and higher education institutions to respond?
I haven’t had a huge amount of feedback from other universities, but it raised some eyebrows during discussions with other Colleges. There are a few Colleges working towards it and as tablets become more prominent I think there may be a sudden surge to it. I’m just glad that our IT Committee and the governing body of the College took the option to make the boundary of our WiFi where it all kicks off.
Q. It is quite an ambitious project, how are you aiming to actualise it?
A. We’ve technically done it. The planned location of all the Aerohive devices will cover all the internal buildings and internal rooms. From the initial configurations it seems that we have blanket coverage already and there is still another building yet to do.
Q. How is it project being funded?
A. The Colleges are self-funded, and we receive a lot of income from alumni and fundraising. Times are tight and even the Oxford Colleges have had to tighten their belt, so it was quite a big step for the College to decide to invest in the wireless network. The investment will hopefully pay off for the College and we will be ahead of the game.
Words: Joel Plaja, Education Correspondent