Technology officials said GW wants to expand wireless Internet access to more academic buildings this year, but plans will be postponed while the University addresses funding and “hacking” issues.
The Gelman Library, Medical Center Himmelfarb Library, Kogan Plaza and Pushkin Plaza next to the Academic Center are currently equipped for wireless users with laptop computers. Students can access the network if they have a system card and a Webmail account.
Wireless access is becoming cheap and easy to use but has “a serious shortcoming,” its vulnerability to hackers, said Guy Jones, chief technology officer for Information Systems and Services.
ISS e-mailed students a technology update a few weeks ago, calling wireless access points a “security nightmare.” In the letter, Chief Information Officer David Swartz explained that ISS will “control wireless access” while designing a solution that will protect against “unauthorized access, unauthorized usage and possible damage.”
“If used in a classroom setting, for example, the possibility of another student seeing your passwords and other traffic is very high,” Jones said.
Some hackers practice “war driving,” or driving around looking for wireless radio signals, Jones said. Because signals range from 50 to 300 feet away from the access point, hackers can easily pick them up outside, he said.
ISS officials said they are evaluating a new encryption system, Virtual Private Networking, which will hopefully make the wireless system more secure, Jones said.
“This effort will probably take 60 to 90 days before it is ready for production use,” he said. “After that, there will be a gradual rollout of this service to existing sites, and after that new sites will be able to be installed.”
American University, which has had wireless access in residence halls and some academic buildings since the beginning of this semester, also has security concerns, said American network analyst Manoj Abeysekara.
The University created special security settings that only allow students with access codes to use the system.
“Otherwise, the system is freely available for anybody to use,” Abeysekara said. “There has to be some sort of control.”
Once security issues are resolved, ISS officials said they plan to continue wireless expansion to all academic buildings.
Jones estimated that complete coverage will cost between $2 million and $4 million.
“(But ISS is) looking for creative ways to keep the costs under control,” he said.
To save money, officials said they may install “transceivers” that allow students to share wireless ports or “third generation wireless” technology, which connects the network through cell phones and lets users surf the Internet when away from hubs.
The library’s portion of the project would take about $50,000, but Gelman has only spent about $4,000 so far, which the library took out of its annual budgets for the past two years, said Gelman Technology Support Center Manager Blaine D’Amico.
Gelman’s program, aSNAP, includes 80 Ethernet ports with wired and wireless access. The system has been available since spring 2001, but this year officials added 35 wireless ports, including one in Kogan Plaza. Increasing speed and security and adding about 30 more ports in the library and its surrounding grounds are included in the $50,000 price tag.
D’Amico said there are no plans at this time to make the library completely wireless.
“What we have done so far has been made possible by the voluntary library gift,” D’Amico said. “There is no funding from the regular budget available for wireless initiatives. A donor and/or partnership with (computer manufacturer) Cisco would be needed to do this project properly.”
He noted that ISS has arranged for Gelman to obtain equipment from Cisco Systems for 40 percent of retail pricing.
Officials said the benefits of a wireless network outweigh its initial problems. D’Amico said that the system will be convenient for students doing schoolwork.
Punch Taylor, who was in charge of Dartmouth College’s wireless project that started in 2000, said that all of Dartmouth’s buildings and most of its outdoor areas have wireless access.
He said although Dartmouth “felt its way along” in the beginning, about 90 percent of students brought laptops this year because of wireless access.
With more than 500 access points, Taylor said he worked with alumni and Cisco to fund the project, which cost about $750,000.
Some students said that they do not think they would use the system and would like to see the university spend its money on a project that more students would use.
“If I want to go on the Internet I can just go to a computer lab inside a building,” sophomore David Heacock said. “If access could reach students living off campus, then maybe I’d understand, but I don’t see a use for (wireless access) on campus.”
“I’m skeptical,” sophomore Emily Beaton said. “I’m going to argue that you could fix up some dorms with the money. The money could be better spent.”
Other GW students said they liked the idea of having wireless access because of its convenience.
“Technology is one thing that draws students to GW. As a student in the Media and Public Affairs building, we don’t have much but we do have technology,” senior Ayana Morali said.
“As long as (wireless) is protected with security because of hackers, it’s a good idea,” freshman John Van Name said. “It’s easier when you’re in class. I would use it.”
This new technology, however, will not replace all current Ethernet connections at GW, Jones said. Wireless access is best reserved for hard-to-wire places like classrooms, open areas, conference rooms and auditoriums, he said.
There are no plans to “roll (wireless access) out universally” until officials deal with security problems and gain more funding, but students can expect to see an upgrade in security in old ports and possibly new access points this year, Jones said.
An aSNAP user group meeting to discuss the future of wireless technology in Gelman will be held on Kogan Plaza Thursday at 7 p.m.
-Julie Gordon contributed to this report.