Students looking to check their Facebook updates while outdoors are currently better off relying on their iPhones or BlackBerrys than their personal laptop computers.

And University officials say they shouldn’t expect that to change.

According to Andy Palms, the University’s director of IT Communications, the University has no plans to broaden the reach of its wireless Internet network on campus, but will instead focus on making its coverage more secure.

With nearly a quarter of the U.S. population owning a smart phone — like iPhones or BlackBerrys — Palms said the University has justified its lack of outdoor coverage with the growing prevalence of 3G networks and similar networking systems offered by companies like Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

“When you’re walking across the Diag, I don’t know that you need more capacity on a truly mobile device than what a carrier provides you,” Palms said.

A push for expanded wireless access on college campuses has pushed some schools like Cornell University and Dartmouth College to offer campus-wide WiFi access that spans a majority of indoor and outdoors locations.

Palms attributes the difficulty in coordinating a comprehensive wireless Internet system to the University’s decentralized unit structure. He said each school and college consults with the University’s Information Technology Central Services but will ultimately judge its own IT needs.

“The units are continuing to make their own financial decisions about how they spend student tuition dollars, whether they spend it on (WiFi) or on faculty or whatever their local needs are,” said Palms. “It’s a very autonomous University.”

The dorms have been one area where students are particularly concerned with wireless reception.

Mosher-Jordan Hall and Mary Markley Hall have been among the few residence halls equipped with WiFi access in both public areas and individual rooms. The same capacity for wireless access will be extended to Stockwell Hall and North Quad when they officially open their doors in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

Engineering sophomore Zach Stoklosa lived on North Campus last year in Baits II — one of many residence halls lacking wireless Internet access.

“It was a hassle if you just wanted to take your laptop somewhere else to work,” he said.

Currently living in West Quad, Stoklosa and his friends have chosen a more enterprising alternative, using a password-protected wireless connection from a router they purchased earlier in the year. He said having personal WiFi access means not having “to worry about cables.”

Stoklosa said he was aware this is against dorm policy.

Alan Levy, ITCS director of communications, acknowledged that the issue of wireless Internet access in the dorms has been repeatedly discussed among University officials. He maintained that with about 3,000 access points and a continuous process of upgrading the network, coverage at the University is typically good.

Levy said ITCS has instead focused its efforts on improving the security of the network established on campus by encouraging students, faculty and staff to use the new MWireless network, which is more secure, over the existing UM Wireless system, which has been around for years.

“Our primary focus at this point is establishing MWireless as the WiFi environment for the vast majority of campus,” he said.

The University’s developing wireless Internet infrastructure is just one aspect of a larger landscape of technological growth and how that affects the current generation of students.

Engineering lecturer Jeff Ringenberg said he has observed the Internet playing an increasingly important part of students’ lives in the last five years.

He added that wireless Internet access in the classroom has been an effective tool in delivering information and facilitating “student-driven learning.”

Ringenberg noted that technology is a double-edged sword, and the benefits of WiFi in the classroom to supplement course content must be weighed against the inherent distractions of access.

“I don’t think it’s important to always be connected, but I think it’s important to always have the option to be connected,” he said. “Everyone has to be able to unplug at some point, to turn off the e-mail, to just sit back and allow the mind to relax.”

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