What for WiFi

Don't you just love all the technological acronyms floating around these days? It's almost like being in the army... "Hey, my PDA is AWOL!"


One of the latest of these wonderful abbreviations is WiFi. What's WiFi? I guess it's kind of like High-Fi, short for high fidelity, but the Wi stands for wireless. Actually, the long-winded term is Wireless Local Area Networks (WLAN), but everyone seems to like WiFi better, maybe because you can dance to it.

But the bigger and better question is, why WiFi? The short answer is that it allows users at your camp -- whether staff or guests -- to hook into all the things computers can do for people these days without having to find a telephone jack or associated outlet.

Of course the users themselves have to have the appropriate laptop system to do it, but it's a lot more common for today's laptop to already have the appropriate bells and whistles, though the user may not know it.

WiFi Works
"We use WiFi to access the network, but a lot of people -- particularly our guests -- use it to access the Web and their e-mail," says Kevin Linville, information technology systems administrator for Spring Hill Camps, with locations in Michigan and Indiana. "There's a tremendous amount of mobility for people in our business network, and for people who visit camp. We have guests and volunteers who want an access point where they don't tie up an office space. On the business side, it's the staff that have laptops and can go from building to building all over camp."

Linville says it's also a boon to staff during meetings. Everyone can bring a laptop and access their files without all the wiring, rummaging and general pain it would be if everyone had to find a place to hook up for a staff meeting.

Linville adds that it's relatively inexpensive and simple to hook up a WiFi system, though you need to research it thoroughly and plan a solid strategy before you start setting it up.

"First, you have to have a strong backbone of a network -- something that's running well so that you can drop a wireless device onto a network and set it up so that people who use it can have access to it based on network rights," explains Linville. "If you're offering it for staff and guests you will have to have two different standards, so you have to come up with a plan that gives the organization a standard that differentiates between guests and staff."

Basically, what it boils down to is giving guests certain access rights, and protecting the more sensitive areas of the network with a password.

In the Real World
Spring Hill uses Linksys home-office product, which Linville says is robust enough for the camp's current uses without breaking the bank (each setup is typically $85-$100).

Wireless has allowed Spring Hill to provide network capabilities to buildings at camp that never had it before. Linville says that setting up a wireless access point is relatively simple and inexpensive. Though slower than a wired connection, the benefits of mobility far outweigh the speed factor.

"At our facility in Indiana we have wireless access point in the main building, which previously didn't have a network cable connecting it. They're using a notebook computer with a wireless access point on it to check in medical needs for campers. As people come in to register, they're taking medical information and putting it in a database. So, when people register they can access the database instead of writing it down on paper, and can make changes in real time, so there's no need to duplicate effort," says Linville.

Additionally, the wireless network is hooked up to the camp's management software, which allows changes on the fly from relatively mobile locations.

The next step would be to set up an access point at a central high point so that the network can be accessed from the great outdoors and all over camp, rather than at buildings and offices here and there.

Wireless is line of sight, so things like hills, trees and snowstorms that are in the way will block and break up the signal. Within a building, access is pretty consistent.

"If you move wireless outside there's a lot of planning involved, especially depending on where you're located and the time of year. It would be very nice to have something outside, and we're working on establishing something in the next two or three years," says Linville. "WiFi access outside would open up handheld devices like PDAs to our staff. They're already asking for them because of handheld technology's functionality and portability. We're seeing that the smaller local access points has its advantages, but if you can have a point that's high enough, with a key or central access point that broadcasts to other offices, there's a definite advantage. We'd also like to consider voice-over IP with a wireless radio phone, which would use a wireless access point. Right now we're using two-way radios, but you could literally route a phone call to someone in the field or talk to them on the radio at the same time, but you need to have a wireless access point that's strong enough to broadcast that information."

Linville stresses that all of this progress is dependent upon making sure the system is updated and well-maintained. SpringHill has a relatively healthy budget for technology, and Linville says it's made a big difference in the efficiency of the operation.

"If you haven't invested enough in technology, the network begins to deteriorate over a period of time and the standards are no longer in place. Then you're backpedaling and wondering why you're spending so much on technology," says Linville. "We have a three-year rotation plan -- after every three years we rotate out a third of our equipment. A computer can last forever, but it doesn't keep up with technology and software. If we keep up with replacement, we can support new software and technology. It's good to have a strategy and standard and stick with it. We stick with certain brands, for instance -- I look at the product, and how it's supported. We have more than 200 workstations at our camp. Do I want to repair all of those? I'm one person who runs the network at two facilities. Our equipment is more expensive but we really pride ourselves on sticking with the strategy we began in 1999, and here we are in 2005 and we have a very stable network because we decided to go with a standard and stuck with it. We don't have to spend a lot of time repairing things, and if there's a problem we expect the vendor to come through for us because we paid for it."