ITS expands Wi-Fi infrastructure

Framingham State ITS spent approximately $1 million on improving the University’s Wi-Fi infrastructure over the past three years, according to Mike Zinkus, director of systems and networking.

Zinkus said ITS worked with Gradient Networks, a third-party organization that conducted a “site survey” of Framingham State four years ago.

According to its website, Gradient Networks conducts these surveys for institutions and businesses. It uses the data it finds to propose solutions to improve Wi-Fi connectivity.

The survey was “an assessment of all the wireless coverage on campus,” said Zinkus. At the time of the survey, the University had “300 wireless access points.”

With the addition of West and North halls, that number rose to 1,100, Zinkus added.

According to Zinkus, the addition of 800 new access points was necessary because “it used to be that everybody only had a laptop. Now they have a laptop, a smart phone and a smart TV.”

Before the addition of the new access points, the old ones were at “max capacity,” he said.

This influx of internet-connected devices increased the amount of bandwidth used by each student. As a result, Wi-Fi speeds for everyone on campus began to slow down.

Amanda Timons, a senior, said, “The Wi-Fi has always been spotty, but with [the new network], I don’t feel there’s been any kind of improvement.”

Even with the new access points, Timons still experiences a “spotty” connection. She added some buildings have stronger connections than others. “I would say the worst is May Hall. The best is usually Hemenway.”

Sydney Buono, a junior, also experienced what she called “dead spots” in the library, McCarthy Center and the Athletic Center. She said the Wi-Fi has improved in the past three years, yet she’s “still not wicked impressed.”

While connection strength and speeds were driving issues to improve the Wi-Fi infrastructure, Zinkus said the biggest issue ITS needed to address was security.

Another improvement ITS made is the implementation of IEEE 802.1x.

802.1x is a WPA 2 enterprise network security protocol widely used in consumer devices since 2011, according to NetworkWorld.

With the introduction of 802.1x, users now have to log into the network while accessing it for the first time on a device such as a laptop, smartphone or tablet. ITS also introduced “FSU_Wireless,” the network which replaced “FSU_Wifi” and implements this new technology.

802.1x includes an encryption protocol that alerts ITS when it detects suspicious activity.

Suspicious activity can include anything from someone outside the University attempting to hack into the network, to a student on campus downloading large amounts of pirated media.

If the device that set off the alarm is on campus, ITS can locate it down to the building and room number.

ITS also has the ability to block these types of activities.

Corey Hobbs, manager of networking and telecom, said, “If someone is doing something they’re not supposed to be doing that can detract from the experience of other students, we’re able to shut them off a lot easier now.”

Wi-Fi networks typically fall into one of two categories – home or enterprise. 802.1x is primarily built for enterprise use. As a result, some devices which are designed for home use, such as smart lightbulbs, Amazon Echoes and various gaming consoles and streaming boxes, don’t support 802.1x.

Hobbs said the biggest issue ITS had while transitioning to the new network was connecting these types of devices.

These devices now have to be manually added to the “FSU Guest” network. Any device a user wants connected to Wi-Fi and that does not work with the “FSU_Wireless” network will have to be manually added by ITS. In order to do this, the user must find each device’s MAC address and email it to ITS to be added to the guest network.

However, Zinkus said “close to 95 or 98 percent” of devices students use regularly should work without a problem.

He added, “If you were to break it down, at least 50 percent” of emails ITS receives regarding the change “fall into the category of a device that doesn’t support 802.1x.” These devices are then manually registered.

Hobbs said approximately 400 devices have been added to the network this way.

Zinkus added ITS views these as “requests, rather than incidents.”

Hobbs said according to ITS’ logs, of 6,561 devices, they have two reports of devices that currently don’t work at all on the new network.

Gabby Cochran, a freshman, said the process was “annoying.” While waiting for an email response from ITS, she had to purchase an Ethernet cable in order to connect to the internet on her device. She said ITS should have done more to inform students of the process to connect to the network.

Over the summer, Hobbs worked with an “informal” group of approximately 50 users on campus, including faculty and early arrival SDAs and RAs.

Hobbs said the issue of transitioning from that initial testing group of 50 to over 5,000 active users was something to which they had to adjust.

He added one of the biggest issues many students and faculty are having with the transition to the updated infrastructure is logins.

Ethan Norton, a junior, had login issues when connecting to the new network. “I would enter the [username and password] I use for everything at school as I had been instructed, and the network would deny me access,” he said.

He added the instructions ITS emailed students were “more than sufficient, but assuming I’m not the only person unable to log in, then they probably need to update us on the situation.”

ITS urges all students, faculty and staff to report any issues they may have with the Wi-Fi across campus.

The guest network also allows for University visitors to connect to the internet without slowing down the main “FSU_Wireless” network.

ITS also worked with eduroam to add FSU to its list of participating schools.

Eduroam is a network comprised of hundreds of schools throughout the world that allows students or professors from any of the other participating schools to access each other’s Wi-Fi networks.

Hobbs said the old “FSU_wifi” network has been removed throughout the residence halls. However, it may still be accessible with some devices in certain locations on campus.

ITS urges students not to connect to the old network as the department is still in the process of shutting it down.

Graphic by Emily Robinson

 

 

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