Wi-Fi Access for the new Session at RGU

It’s now the beginning of September and time to restart the IT Blog after a bit of a break over the summer. It might have been a break as far as the blog is concerned, but it has been a busy period of time for IT Services. For the first blog post of the new Session I thought I would update you on some of the changes we have been making to the Wi-Fi system on Campus.

Last year we rolled out a new system, based on “eduroam”. For many people it worked well from the outset, but we know from feedback that others had problems connecting to Wi-Fi, especially in the earlier part of the Session. We also know that we did not have sufficient Wi-Fi cover in all parts of the campus and this was frustrating for people trying to connect in areas where there was a poor signal.

I’d like to start with a reminder on how to connect and the key benefit of “eduroam.” If you look at the Wi-Fi networks available on campus you should see two in particular:

RGU_Connect
eduroam

The very first time you connect any device to our Wi-Fi, you should use RGU_connect. This will ask you to enter your RGU username and password, and will guide you through a series of steps to automatically set up your device to connect to the eduroam Wi-Fi service. Don’t try to set up the eduroam service manually – it won’t work.

After you have done this, you should not normally need to use RGU_Connect on that device again. Please don’t try to configure RGU_Connect to use as your main Wi-Fi network- it is not designed for this, and you will prevent others from being able to log in. Once you have completed the initial setup, your device should from then on automatically connect to the eduroam service. If you have more than one device, then you will have to go through RGU_Connect once on each device you wish to use.

You will find full instructions for all the main device types in the IT Help Desk website.

You may find when moving around the Campus that eduroam occasionally drops the signal so that it can reconnect to the Wi-Fi access points in your new location – sometimes this can take a minute or two but it should connect again automatically. If your device for any reason is not connecting, try turning Wi-Fi off for a minute or so and then back on.

If you find that your device does not automatically connect to eduroam or you are having persistent problems connecting, then please do contact the IT Help Desk for assistance. It’s important for us to know if people are having specific problems so that we can resolve them.

Eduroam is an International service used by Universities and Colleges across the world. This means that once you have successfully set up your device to connect to eduroam at RGU, it will also automatically connect to eduroam at any other University or college in the UK or the world that uses eduroam. You don’t need to do anything else to set this up. In summary, eduroam is your normal Wi-Fi service when you are on our Campus or visiting another institution.

We are aware that some “apps” on mobile platforms do not work fully across our Wi-Fi system. We do not block any apps deliberately, but we believe that the design of some apps is such that they do not operate across some of the network management tools that we use, in common with many other large organisations. We are continuing to look at what we can do to alleviate this.

As far as coverage goes, we have been installing additional access point across all of our campus buildings. This is a major piece of work which has been taking place over the summer, and should be completed by the start of Semester. This means that you will get a good wireless signal inside most areas in our buildings.

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Update on Wireless Service

First of all, a Happy New Year to all staff and students at RGU! This blog has been a bit quiet last few weeks so new year resolution is to put more out on the blog.

Back in August, I gave an update on our plans for improving the wireless service on our Garthdee campus. Our plan then was to install the new service, based on “Eduroam”, in Riverside East and the refurbished space in Aberdeen Business School, followed by a rollout to the rest of the Campus to replace the previous system. We had hoped that the previous system would have been able to operate for an interim period of time until we completed the full rollout of Eduroam, but unfortunately it continued to cause problems from the start of Semester.

So, we decided to quickly replace all the wireless access points on the old system so that Eduroam is now the only wireless system on Campus. We also installed additional access points in the refurbished ABS Foyer and that has greatly improved the cover there.

However, we don’t yet have wireless coverage across all areas on Garthdee and we are working to extend this over the next few months. At the moment, the whole of Riverside East is covered, the open central areas in Aberdeen Business School, and Faculty of Health and Social Care are covered, Sports Centre and a number of open areas and meeting rooms in the other buildings. Until we get the cover extended, you may find some rooms where the wireless signal is not strong enough to give you a good connection – it’s not broken, it’s just that we haven’t yet brought the new system to these areas.

We know that WiFi is an important service for our users. Students, as usual, have a wonderful way of expressing their service requirements and one of the Class Reps shared this little pyramid with me – thanks!

WiFi

IT Services can see from the system logs that many people are using WiFi without any difficulty, but at the end of last year there were a number of people reporting some problems. Remember, there’s good support material which you can find online on the IT Helpdesk’s support pages.

We made a change in December as recommended by the supplier to address some problems in connectivity and “roaming”. What’s “roaming”, you may ask? Well, when your device connects to a wireless network it connects to a wireless access point (transmitter) close to you. If you move around the building, the system has to release you from the original access point and connect you to another one. Technically, that’s a complex process and sometimes, it can take a minute or two for that to settle down, so if you are finding problems with WiFi as you move around, allow the system a bit of time.

Some people have been confused by “RGU Connect” – you only use RGU Connect once, and what it does is configure all the settings on your device. Once you’ve done that, your device should automatically connect to eduroam from then on. Please don’t try to use RGU Connect as your main WiFi – it causes problems for other people trying to connect, and anyway won’t work very well.

IT Services also found last year that some devices worked better than others – this appears to relate to the manufacturer and the operating system – whether its Microsoft, Android or Mac. IT Services hope that the change made in December will have improved these issues but are continuing to monitor and work with the supplier on this.

Some apps that have worked in the past aren’t working fully. Some of these IT Services have been able to fix, others, are more difficult to diagnose. I am aware that Facebook Apps work on some devices but not on others – this is not a University policy to block Facebook!!! IT Services are continuing to work to resolve these issues, although some of this is dependent on getting information from the people that wrote the apps.

When you visit other eduroam campuses (in Aberdeen you can access it at Aberdeen University and NHS teaching hospitals) you will need to turn off “proxy” settings to allow you to use the service there (remember to note what they are before you turn them off!) then switch the proxy settings back on when you come back to RGU – they are normally “proxy.rgu.ac.uk”.

And finally (!) – if you are running a conference or event, remember that IT Services can provide guest logins for the WiFi. Only guests from other Universities will be able to use eduroam, and even then only if their University supports it.

Connected Aberdeen

Aberdeen and the surrounding regions are widely recognised as a global energy hub and a substantial contributor to the economy. Aberdeen was the only major UK city to grow during the last recession, oil and gas exports are around £7billion annually and 11 of Scotland’s top 25 companies are located in the region.

Driven by the vibrant commercial and residential sectors, there is a growing demand for digital connectivity in the area. There is also a recognition that currently it is behind the curve in the deployment of next generation broadband and that connectivity overall is not in keeping with the region’s role as a global energy hub.

Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council are working in partnership on an initiative called “Accelerate Aberdeen” to improve digital connectivity within the City and the immediately surround regions. Late last year it was announced that Aberdeen City had been awarded over £5m from the UK Government “Urban Broadband Fund” to become a ‘Super Connected City’. This is being taken forward in a number of distinct strands and Aberdeen City Council have engaged early on with the two Universities in the city and with North East of Scotland College to ensure that they are involved.

One of the strands is called a “wireless concession” and has been launched as a public tender . Aberdeen City Council wants to see significantly improved mobile and wireless coverage across the city. To achieve this, the Council will allow the successful bidder to use the Council’s lampposts, bus stops, and buildings across the City to install the necessary infrastructure to provide 4G mobile coverage, and WiFi in key areas. It’s fantastic that the Council have recognised the importance of this to the educational institutions in the city. Between the two Universities and the College we probably have over 30,000 learners in the city – the vast majority of whom will rely heavily on good mobile and wireless coverage for communication and accessing modern digital learning resources. Anything that improves connectivity across the city will benefit the learner and research communities and their interaction with enterprises across the city.

Formally, this procurement covers assets owned by Aberdeen City Council. It might also be possible to extend this in a similar way to assets owned by the Universities and the College in order to improve coverage on our campuses, but we’ll need to wait until early 2014 to talk to the successful bidder and see what might be possible here. Will keep you posted.

OOPS! – Working from Home

There is a cracking article in a recent edition of “The Economist”, which is available online and in which Yahoo’s new Chief Executive, Marissa Mayer, appears to be driving Yahoo employees to come in to the office unless they have a very good reason to work from home. The memo from the Human Resources Manager is addressed to “Yahoos”. If you are cringing already, read the article!

This is contrary to the direction that most enlightened organisations are travelling in – the ability to work from home or anywhere else off Campus for that matter is increasingly one aspect of a more flexible approach to working life. Of course, there are occasions where face to face contact and participation cannot be easily replaced, but equally there are many activities which can be easily carried out anywhere.  An important aspect of our IT Strategy is to ensure that access to our core IT services can be provided easily to any location, on any device, whilst maintaining security of information and access. A key part of that is the MyApps service, which I have mentioned before and which gives  you access to your University IT resources from anywhere – at work, at home, on the move, on a Pc, on an iPad – even on your phone if you can cope with the small screen size.

The great thing about MyApps is that information and data never leaves the University servers. This is important if you are working from home and relieves you of many responsibilities. Did you know that if you use your personal e-mail account for work then these e-mails are covered by the Freedom of Information Act? Likewise, if you store University documents on your home computer, or take paper documents home, you could be personally liable for any breaches under the data protection act? There are a few things to think about if you are working from home – have a look at the page on the Staff Portal if you want a very comprehensive guide:

We’ve also published an interactive guide to data security for mobile devices under the banner of “OOPS” – “Out Of Protected Spaces” and if you are a member of staff you will already have received that guide in hard copy as well as interactively. We’ve had really good feedback from that – with many people making positive suggestions and asking very relevant questions about particular situations and also requests for additional copies. We did have one person who returned the printed cards with an anonymous note saying “waste of money”. That’s a real disappointment and completely out of step with all the other feedback we have received. Given the amount of press coverage of authorities being fined 6 figure sums of money for data protection breaches, and given the fact that this whole issue is important enough to grab the attention of the University’s Audit Committee, I hope that person has a change of heart on further reflection.

Here is the “OOPS” guide:

OOPS

Wireless Coverage at RGU

We’ve had a few issues with our wireless network over the past few weeks – apologies for that to our staff and students. Without going into the details, there were a number of unexpected issues with the central controllers and we’ve been in regular contact with the supplier and manufacturer to get these sorted. We still have some background work to do in order to get to the root cause of the issues, but we have an interim solution in place now and the service itself is much more stable for our users. We are, as it happens, shortly going to install a new Wireless Network Infrastructure anyway to meet the requirements of the new Riverside East building down at Garthdee, and to meet the growth in demand for coverage across the whole of the Garthdee Campus.

Use of wireless networks, as we all know, has exploded over the last few years to the point where we increasingly take it for granted that we will have wireless access in many public spaces and places of work. In designing our “Riverside East” new building down at the Garthdee Campus, we were clear from the outset that we wished to see wireless coverage available within the entire building. Our current wireless infrastructure varies across the Campus. When it was first implemented, the intention was to make sure that the key “public” areas were wireless enabled, including the core committee rooms, library and teaching areas. But, it was not designed to be a complete solution – especially in our older buildings it did not at the time make sense to attempt to put wireless coverage into every single room.

Requirements change, however, and with the range of mobile devices in use today complete wireless coverage is now a growing expectation, and we are receiving requests for the wireless service to be extended to areas that currently have poor coverage. As mentioned above, we are starting the process of refreshing our wireless network with the new Riverside East building in the first instance. We need to get that building commissioned as our first priority, but whatever solution we procure for that will be sized so that it can be expanded across to the rest of the Campus.

Installing a wireless network in a large building with thousands of users is a complex task. Wireless signals are broadcast by what we call “wireless access points” – you’ve probably seen them on the wall around the campus. Each access point can only handle a limited number of connections without losing performance, and it must not be too close to another access point using the same radio frequency, and there is a limited number of radio frequencies that by law we are allowed to use. So, we have to position the access points across the building (vertically as well as horizontally) to match what we think the demand will be in each area and configure them so that they don’t interfere with each other. To achieve that, we need to calculate how far each signal will broadcast and that depends on the construction materials used in the building. Early on in the design of the building, we put the CAD drawings through a software programme which calculates how the wireless signal will behave theoretically and we use that to estimate where the access points should go. That is only an approximate guide, however, and once the building is complete engineers have to physically walk through the building to measure the actual signal loss in each area before they can finalise where all the access points should go.

Even having done all of that, there are still some limitations on wireless technology. If you are doing heavy downloads of large files, and particularly if there are a number of people doing that in the same physical location, you may find that the wireless network will slow down – that’s just the laws of physics and how much traffic can be carried across one radio signal in one location. That said, we are looking at newer wireless technologies that will improve performance even in areas of dense use. So, while there might still be some occasions where it is better to “plug in”, for most everyday tasks – email, web browsing, Facebook usage etc the new wireless network will be fine.

Is there a Washing Machine Available??

I organised an event this week for representatives of Scotland’s Colleges, Higher Education IT Directors Scotland (HEIDS) and the Scottish Confederation of University and Research Libraries on the subject of developing mobile “apps”. We had a good turnout – about 50 people from across the sectors. The main idea of the event was to hear from some real world examples how some institutions had approached the development of mobile services, and to see how we might share ideas, expertise, or effort as more institutions start to create their own mobile services. It seems that a number of institutions have made a good start in developing mobile services, whilst others (the majority I would say) are either on the starting blocks or planning their way to the starting blocks.

We had great presentations – they are all online, have a look at them for more detail. The presentations were from Edinburgh’s Telford College, the University of Edinburgh, and Stirling University, followed by some breakout sessions to figure out where we might collaborate in future.

Most institutions felt that enhancing the student experience and the online learning environment were their priorities. They want to avoid the trap of just putting online information that is already on the web. The experience of those who have developed apps is that students are looking for quick access, bite size, time / location sensitive information and services well suited to mobile access situations.

Location based information is popular, so maps figure a lot. One of the most popular services seems to be information on where the nearest available PC is – ironic as we look to mobile technology to displace PC’s for some uses! Edinburgh University have tall buildings, so they are looking to future devices to have altitude sensors as well as traditional location indicators. Don’t laugh – where you have tall library buildings this is a real issue.

One of the tricks is to think about how services that we might not have imagined with traditional technologies. Students at Lancaster University halls of residence were frustrated because half the time when they went to the laundrette all the machines were in use. So, as part of their mobile app development the University hooked up sensors on washers and dryers to their network and published availability on their app. The students love it!

Extending the online learning environment also featured strongly. Access to learning materials, and also the ability to look up library catalogues, check availability, reserve and book online.

Some institutions are looking at exploiting other features of mobile technology, including their potential uses for cash payments and to act as an ID card for attendance monitoring. Attendance monitoring is a real challenge for many institutions. With automated card-based systems, students might be tempted to give their card to a friend so that the friend can swipe them in and it looks as if they have attended the class. However, when asked if they would part with their mobile phone for this devious purpose – no way!

At the end of the event, we agreed a number of ways in which it should be possible for institutions to collaborate – more on this in a future blog as things start to take shape.

Andy McCreath