Within the proliferation of wireless LANs, universities represent an interesting juxtaposition. College campuses are among the most wired places on the planet, and students are never far from a terminal. That might be why there is little interest in traditional wireless WAN services. Last semester I taught a course at Tufts University. All but one of my 25 students owned a mobile phone, and one-quarter of them used that as their only phone. Yet outside of Short Message Service missives, few were interested in accessing Internet content from their wireless phone or even their laptop at dial-up speeds. With more than 30 percent of University of Georgia students owning a laptop, WLAN as a broadband extension of the wired campus environment is a natural.
The WAGZone is groundbreaking in two ways. First, it is a unique example of cooperation among academic, government and business constituencies. Second, much thought has been given to the type of content users would be interested in accessing while mobile?a departure from “build it and they will come” network deployments. The Nimbus application is interesting, as it extends the instant messaging culture so prevalent in the youth market to a mobile environment. The opt-in aspect alleviates some of the privacy concerns associated with the coming wave of location-based services. If Nimbus is successful, I would like to see the application integrated with wireless phones in some way, since PDA penetration remains low.
The case for the database services is less convincing. Why is a subset of information from a local newspaper placed on the WAGZone when laptop/PDA users with a Wi-Fi connection can see the entire publication via the Internet? A mobile version of Flagpole would make more sense if it pushed personalized content to users.
The WAGZone is a relatively low-cost way to deploy a limited Wi-Fi network to learn about usage patterns and content interests in a university community. But larger issues remain, such as students’ willingness to pay, how merchants make money and how the WAGZone integrates with the islands of public WLAN service proliferating across the country. And since this is a quasi-public network, there are security and network management concerns related to both internal and potential external users. Organizers should also consider the relationship between the WAGZone and wireless WANs.
This deployment represents both the benefits of WLAN technology, and the key business model and integration issues being debated within the wireless community.