Wiring for the future

On both school and college campuses, digital is the new buzzword. Administrators realize they have to not only accommodate technological advances in their schools, but also pioneer them.

Identifying the best telecommunications infrastructure for a school is one of the most challenging tasks for a school's administrative staff and its technical design team. But with careful strategic planning, the task can be a lot less daunting.

A school must first decide what type of campuswide data network, phone system and video system it wants. That will determine the data-transmission speed and the type of cables to be used.

The current industry trend is to use fiber-optic cables for all three systems: data, voice and video. While this makes sense for large industrial facilities that use high-speed data equipment in their day-to-day research and development, fiber optic is somewhat costly for high schools and junior colleges. Voice and video equipment that is compatible with fiber optics costs much more than their twisted-pair and coaxial cable counterparts.

Since voice and video signals are transmitted at much slower speeds than data, using fiber-optic cable for data, twisted-pair cable for voice, and coaxial cable for video is more economical. Schools can choose to install spare multimode and singlemode unterminated fibers in the infrastructure for future upgrades, should fiber-optic-compatible voice and video equipment become more feasible.

Digging up campus As a second step, schools should survey existing underground utility structures, so that the routing of the telecommunications lines does not cut into gas, water, sewer, drainage and electric lines. The new lines can be detoured around the existing structure, or be placed within the same trench at a different elevation, with adequate space separating the two.

Schools have to weigh the cost of accommodating the additional trench, pipes and cables for the detoured routing vs. what it would cost to re-open an existing utility trench and build a shared infrastructure without disturbing any of the existing utilities.

More often, sharing a trench poses a greater challenge and costs more than digging a new trench because of the extensive survey the process entails, and the difficulty of building a shared infrastructure.

Schools should evaluate whether to install a telecommunications infrastructure beneath traffic lanes on campus. Building an underground concrete-encased ductbank with rebar reinforcement to protect the fiber-optic, twisted-pair and coaxial cables from heavy soil settlement can provide protection other methods cannot. However, they can drive up costs and are not very accessible if the trench needs to be re-opened.

A compromise solution would be a sand slurry backfill called CDF (Controlled Density Fill) or CLSM (Controlled Low Strength Material) on top of the ducts enclosing the telecommunications cabling. These types of materials can offset a lot of costs associated with building a ductbank, and the ductbank can easily be dug open.

Connecting buildings The next step is to prepare for connectivity between buildings. The standard topology is a star: a building centrally situated in the campus is the hub, and all other buildings are connected to it. In general, the hub houses network backbone equipment such as the servers, the routers, the phone switch, and any emergency back-up and clean power system such as Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) equipment.

Although the star topology is technically sufficient to function as a complete telecommunications network, overlaying a redundant ring topology on top of it guards the system against catastrophic failure in the central hub, or a break in any one of the radial legs. The ring topology allows any one of the buildings to play the role of a central hub and backfeed other buildings through the ring until a problem is fixed. The ring overlay basically entails a second group of fiber-optic cables linking one building to another.

The installation of a typical underground telecommunications infrastructure often takes the physical shape of a circle even in the case of a star topology. The reason is simple: most schools that undergo major telecommunications-system upgrades have buildings throughout the campus, and digging trenches would disrupt the campus.

A more flexible approach would be installing an infrastructure around the entire periphery of the campus, thus enabling individual buildings to dial out to the circle at any time for ease of expansion.

Varied capabilities A system with widespread telecommunications capabilities offers multiple classroom options within one building, and strengthens the school's capacity for in-house programs, community outreach and visiting experts. For example, a technologically upgraded student recreation center can be a center for informal lectures by visiting experts or community leaders, or a classroom for distance-learning courses. The school creates more opportunities for enrollment and extracurricular learning, and its reputation grows beyond the boundaries of the student population into the mainstream community.

For students, the benefits are equally far-reaching. They will have access to more information resources through on-line campus Intranet services, school newspapers and e-mail. On college campuses, they will be able to receive residence-hall room assignments, enrollment services and grades more quickly.

Colleges and universities should be aware that having a sophisticated, reliable telecommunications system is a marketing tool. Colleges are increasingly competing for students, and a campus that can offer such a system can position itself far ahead of other campuses.

Upgrading the technology infrastructure can be overwhelming, but the alternative poses an even greater threat to schools. It is a cliche that school prepares students for the real world, because in the real world, computers are the world's fastest-growing industry. A majority of entry-level jobs require computer literacy. Those are the facts schools must consider as they decide what infrastructure improvements to make.

Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif., found itself in the same position as many California schools: its outdated telecommunications infrastructure was riddled with quick-fix but inadequate repairs. Since the college moved to its current site in the 1950s, it has made few capital improvements to the buildings and campus grounds.

After determining the need to modernize, Holy Names developed plans for a new infrastructure. Installation of the new infrastructure occurred over several phases.

First, the school upgraded phone lines with multiple T1 lines at the point of minimum entry. T1 technology converts a single talk path into 24 simultaneous paths through bandwidth multiplexing. With internal student demand for applications such as Intranets, extranets, e-mail, multimedia support and residence-hall-room telephony, this upgrade offered Holy Names enormous data-transmission capabilities.

The fiber-optic infrastructure consisted of a basic star topology. With a central building acting as the main hub, campus data servers and phone switches are installed in the hub. Fiber-optic cables are run radially from the hub to all other buildings. Between adjoining buildings, a second group of fiber-optic cables links buildings-a redundant ring topology on top of the star topology. This ring acts as a backup in the event catastrophic damage disables the star topology.

The data system upgrade included a complete uplift of each building's LAN infrastructure providing internet access to students campus-wide. Fiber-optic multiplexers, routers and servers were installed in the telecommunications closets of each building, and Category 5 data cables and jacks were deployed to all user spaces. Features such as anti-malicious network attack and network address translation were built into the LAN platform to enhance data system security.

The voice system was upgraded by retrofitting the campus' PBX system with state-of-the-art digital telephony. Frames also were installed in each building's telecommunications closets for local distribution within the building. Through interactive voice response (IVR) technology, the telephony platform can access databases and automate processes, such as class registration, financial aid applications and residence-hall-room assignments. Hospitality-application software also automates mundane tasks, such as updating students' residency status and phone bills.

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