The agriculture department at the University of Arizona in Tucson is taking “plant management” to a new level with an experimental next-generation wireless trial that literally requires field work.

“They’re trying to do some plant diagnostics out in the field and WiMAX, 3G networks, all of those kinds of wide area technologies come into play,” explained Tom Magrini, assistant director of network services in the university’s information and technology services department.

The ag department experiment, while interesting, goes well beyond the wireless network that most students and faculty access via a more conventional 8702.11a/b/g Wi-Fi layout and 4,703 Cisco access points to cover basically seven million square feet of indoor and outdoor space and serving about 37,000 students, faculty and staff.

“The students that are here today are enjoying a network that would have taken us until 2011 or 2012 to build.” – Tom Magrini, assistant director of network services

NEC has provided turnkey management of the wireless project, now in its second phase, from site surveys to cabling infrastructure to vendor and budget management through deployment of the Cisco gear over about a 22-month period. The students have access to both the private wireless network run by the university and a public Wi-Fi cloud also maintained by the U of A made possible through a technology fee they pay every semester.

“We have about 70 percent of the campus covered (and) we’re still building out buildings, but in 22 months we installed about 4,400 access points,” said Magrini, whose department borrowed money from the university to build the network for students, staff and faculty and is repaying it via a four-year plan with the tech fee. “The students that are here today are enjoying a network that would have taken us until 2011 or 2012 to build,” he continued.

The network is intended to be a data link for a generation of students who live to be connected.

“Not only are we their higher education institution where they come for the learning and to get a degree, but we’re also their home for four years,” Magrini said “One student called them lifestyle devices ... all the little mobile devices they bring on campus. We’re really driven by our students to support consumer electronics devices on Wi-Fi.”

Since a university resembles a small city and is even more similar to a large enterprise, NEC is using the lessons it's learned there to approach a wider customer space, said John Yrigoyen, director of wireless solutions at NEC.

“We’re taking the best practices that we learned with the university nationally across our regional sales offices and up into the Canadian offices and building a national practice so that we can deploy services and features and resale as we’ve done with the university on a national basis,” he said. “That includes everything from survey practices, project management aspects and follow-up, day-two support, validation, management, monitoring, a complete soup-to-nuts platform for wireless data and voice.”

It could include in the future some connection to how the university ties together Wi-Fi and voice. U of A is already experimenting with Nokia phones and T-Mobile’s dual-mode UMA-Wi-Fi@Home service starting with the campus’ IT staff.

“We’re in the first stage of a pilot of Nokia dual-mode phones ... and those results are really positive,” said Magrini. “We like the ability to have both the cellular number and the university extension on the device (and) we’re going to go into a second phase of trial ... with the campus community.”

Interestingly, despite the expectations and high hopes surrounding the university’s Wi-Fi cloud, Magrini hasn’t made any overt plans to adopt 802.11n Wi-Fi.

“Your bandwidth limitation of a/b/g is really at the cell itself—you only have about 24 meg realistic data throughput—but since we have so many access points spread over the campus the theory is those phone calls (and) data will be spread over thousands of access points,” he concluded.