Campus goes wireless to improve efficiency, security, communications

By Kathryn M. Rospond  

It’s an unassuming site for a bold technological jump: The campus consists of 18 two-story brick buildings. But scratch beneath the surface and there’s a state-of-the-art wireless infrastructure that could make this site a design model for future campuses. Although it is a residential development, the Lowden Homes public housing development on Chicago’s South Side is more than a prototype for a new generation of public housing. It holds lessons for facilities of all types.

Built in 1954 and named for former Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden, the development has 128 units ranging in size from one bedroom to four bedrooms.

The decision to include wireless infrastructure at Lowden was made during efforts to replace all overhead power lines with underground Category 6 wiring and fiber-optic cabling that links the buildings. Each housing unit will be equipped with access points for monitoring building operations, such as heating and air conditioning. For example, if a unit’s heating or cooling level falls below or exceeds the set temperature range of 68 to 78 degrees, the maintenance staff is notified. Similarly, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) hopes to conserve water and prevent damage by monitoring bathrooms and kitchens for water overflows and leaks.

“We hope to save a tremendous amount of energy through the monitoring process by simply not letting the heat get up to 90 degrees,” says Bill Caulfield, CHA project executive. The University of Illinois at Chicago currently is conducting a formal energy savings analysis.

Keeping An Eye Out

Monitoring is conducted from glass computer rooms in the basements of buildings as well as from remote sites in CHA’s main administration facility. Maintenance staff and building inspectors also can make use of hand-held devices from which information can be downloaded. In life-critical situations, signals from smoke detectors, fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are reported directly to the Chicago Fire Department and the main CHA facility.

Improved security was another goal for CHA’s team. Computers and various household appliances are tagged with radio frequency identification, which triggers security notification if the devices are moved outside the Lowden perimeter. Cameras, which provide 24-hour surveillance of the campus, mechanical rooms and storage rooms, also are tied into the wireless network. For example, CHA security personnel can control camera functions remotely to zoom in on a particular area or get a closer look at an individual. Ultimately, the system will tie into that of the Chicago Police Department, allowing patrol officers to access CHA camera views from a laptop computer or cross-reference images of suspicious individuals with police databases.

The final phase of the project will see the installation of wireless laptop computers in each housing unit for Internet access and broadcast announcements. “In the end, it will be another appliance — just like a stove or refrigerator,” says Montel Gayles, chief of staff at CHA and one of the leaders behind CHA’s Sensible Housing initiative.

“This is an attempt to bridge the digital divide and make public housing residents a part of the 21st century,” Gayles says. “We haven’t truly rehabbed public housing since its inception, and we have to take advantage of this opportunity to make sure that the ones who most need this technology have a chance to use it to its fullest for education, job searches and ease of life.”

Lessons To Learn

In commercial facilities, the applications can be similar. Life-safety and security systems can be used to monitor areas of particular concern, and equipment can be identified with radio frequencies to prevent theft. Likewise, HVAC monitoring through wireless systems would allow facility executives to monitor temperatures relative to setpoints, giving them notification that adjustments are necessary.

CHA officials hope to have funding in place early next year for purchase and installation of the laptops; project completion is scheduled for September or October 2004. In the meantime, however, residents can make use of laptops and undergo computer training at the campus’ community center, which also houses the property management office and provides meeting spaces for residents and a local advisory council.

“This is a great tool for all of our residents,” Caulfield says. “Plus, with the added life-safety benefits, if we save just one life, the system has paid for itself many times over.”

Kathryn M. Rospond is a freelance writer with experience writing about facility technology issues.


Wireless Specifications, Hardware Garner Attention

Following are a few basic facts regarding wireless networking:

  • Wireless Fidelity — "Wi-Fi" — is based on the 802.11 specifications for local area networks established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The basic standard for wireless networking is 802.11b, which operates in the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) frequency range and transmits data at 11 megabytes per second (Mbps). Other options available today are 802.11g, which operates in the 2.4 GHz range but transmits at 54 Mbps, and 802.11a, which operates in the 5 GHz range — providing more radio channels and helping to avoid radio and microwave interference — and transmits at a faster 54 Mbps. A new product called switched Ethernet technology is being tested with a market-release date scheduled for next year. The product provides each user with a dedicated portion of bandwidth instead of accessing a shared bandwidth where performance degrades as more users connect.
  • Two basic hardware items are needed for a wireless network. PC cards (formerly known as PCMCIA cards) are installed in each laptop or desktop computer on the network; these are the wireless receivers. Access points connect to the local area network and use radio-frequency technology to communicate to the wireless receivers. The number and position of access points vary depending on the number of users, how the system is used (receiving video or just e-mail) and potential sources of interference, such as elevators or reinforced wire mesh in walls.
  • Wireless networking currently has some limitations. While wireless networking may work well for basic e-mail situations, it is not well suited for applications requiring higher bandwidth, such as streaming video. Wireless systems are less secure than wired systems and are more susceptible to hacking. External firewalls can increase security; some users also prefer to keep sensitive data on their wired network and use a wireless network for less critical applications. In response to security concerns, the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance has been working with the IEEE to bring about a higher security standard called Wi-Fi Protected Access; certification testing on Wi-Fi Protected Access products began in February 2003.


Thomas Shen, Shen Milsom & Wilke, Inc.; Eric Reifsnider, Wireless Valley Communications; C. Brian Grimm, Wi-Fi Alliance

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  posted on 9/1/2003   Article Use Policy

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