ITS branches out with Wi-Fi on the Diag

Wednesday, May 2, 2018 - 8:37am

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File Photo/Daily

The University of Michigan’s Information and Technology Services announced plans last Thursday to install Wi-Fi on the Diag, providing wireless internet access to the Central Campus area surrounding the block ‘M.’

The initiative began in Fall 2017 when LSA senior Anushka Sarkar, former Central Student Government president, and CSG Vice President Nadine Jawad, a Public Policy senior, started their respective appointments after campaigning on the promise of Wi-Fi on the Diag. The pair took action soon after coming into office, contacting the U-M administration to discuss outdoor internet access. University President Mark Schlissel supported the idea and ITS received funds to add the initiative to its list of projects.

Sarkar noted she worked closely with University administrators, especially Schlissel, to push the plan forward.

“I campaigned on this when I ran for CSG President because it's an unexpectedly important component of daily student life, but its success is also a demonstration of two important tenets of effective student advocacy: the power of persistence, and the power of the personal relationship,” Sarkar wrote in an email interview with The Daily. “I stayed in pretty close contact with the key decision-makers for this issue throughout the year (mainly in Student Life, IT, and the President's office) to ensure it would be prioritized during the university's budget process.”

Major internet access renovations have been underway since 2016 when ITS began the Campuswide WiFi Upgrade Project with the goal of improving wireless access in 275 locations across campus. Andy Palms, executive director of ITS Infrastructure, said that before Sarkar took initiative, ITS would occasionally set up temporary Wi-Fi for outdoor events near the Diag and had discussed the feasibility of installing it permanently. But, according to Palms, ITS did not have official plans to bring Wi-Fi to the Diag.

“We’d been expecting that our students and faculty and staff would be fine just with using their cell phones when they are outdoors,” Palms said. “In fact, our whole project that we’ve had for the last three years to enhance Wi-Fi inside all the buildings, we intentionally had not included outdoor spaces.”

According to Alok Vimawala, director of business services for ITS Infrastructure, several other ITS upgrade projects were inspired by student interest, including the improvement of internet access in the Shapiro Undergraduate and Hatcher Graduate libraries.

“All the Wi-Fi project work that we have had, roughly over the last four to five years, the primary driver for getting all that funded has been the students,” Vimawala said. “Having students advocate for it has been a key difference-maker in getting that approved and actually implemented.”

ITS will work on installing Wi-Fi on the Diag over the summer, with the intention of completing the project in time for the Fall 2018 term. The first step is preparing the buildings around the Diag for the attachment of Wi-Fi equipment, with the exception of the Graduate Library, which will not be modified in any way.

One remaining question is how ITS will establish a Wi-Fi connection in the space around the block ‘M’. ITS has discussed several ideas, such as attaching electrical conduits to light poles or advertising boards. Palms said ITS will likely bury cables using a drilling technique called directional boring to make the equipment less noticeable. 

“We’re trying to minimally impact the aesthetic of the Diag,” Palms said. “If we were to do this perfectly, which I don’t think is possible, but if we were to do this perfectly, no one would see any difference at all. But somehow we need to put the Wi-Fi gear out there.”

Trees present another roadblock, as their branches and leaves can block Wi-Fi signals. To reduce interference, Palms said, Wi-Fi equipment must be installed above people’s heads but below the foliage line. ITS may enlist Custodial and Grounds Services to slightly branch out some of the trees on the Diag so signals can pass under them.

Vimawala said tree roots can also complicate directional boring. ITS has been consulting CGS on how to proceed.

“We have talked with them already as far as the directional boring stuff goes, to make sure that whatever we’re doing in the Diag isn’t going to negatively impact the trees and the roots,” Vimawala said. ITS will not, for instance, be digging any trenches or holes to install Wi-Fi equipment.

As the project moves forward, ITS hopes to stay up-to-date on student feedback. Patty Giorgio, senior marketing communication specialist for ITS, said having students reach out with suggestions for further improvement is helpful.

“Student voices are important, and also, because we’ve done the Wi-Fi upgrade throughout the buildings on campus, identifying areas that still are causing trouble is good for us,” Giorgio said.

The Wi-Fi on the Diag initiative marks ITS’s first foray into permanent outdoor wireless internet. Palms thinks the project opens up new opportunities for ITS to explore.

“Going forward, we’ll be interested to know how important outdoor Wi-Fi is to our students,” Palms said. “I guess we’re just looking at exterior spaces more seriously at this point.”