Remember when going to college and living in a dormitory meant long hours of study, bad food, a single telephone down the hall and an old TV that pulled in maybe five or six snow-filled channels?

My, how times have changed. Sure, the studying is still necessary, and the food is probably just as bad, but today's students are becoming active participants in the Information Age-and they're bringing their own computers, telephones and TVs to school with them.

To accommodate this new genre of student, colleges and universities around the country are plugging into the global communications network. They're working with local telecom firms to upgrade their services. Some have built their own cable TV networks. And a few more are becoming the new proving ground for high-speed cable data modems.

A case in point is Boston College, which spent nearly a decade planning and designing a new, campus-wide communication system that allows the school to offer its students a spate of new communications features while simultaneously reducing its overhead. With engineering support from cross-town neighbor Continental Cablevision, BC installed a state-of-the-art 1 GHz hybrid fiber/coax network, added a Nortel telephone switch and LANcity high-speed modems and interfaced the whole thing to Continental's ATM-based fiber ring and network control center in Needham, Mass.

The result? A student body that has unlimited, high-speed access to on-line services; a permanent telephone number that follows the student no matter where he lives on campus, along with reduced long distance calling rates; and more than 50 channels of standard cable TV fare and a half-dozen BC-specific channels.

These are important value-added services as BC, a private college, has to offer its students something different in order to stand out in the college-saturated Boston area. "Boston College competes for students, and this is one of the tools," says Mary Corcoran, BC administrator of advanced technology. "The quality of our competition has really gone up, too. We're now seeing kids who have also been accepted by Notre Dame, Princeton and other schools." The upshot is that BC needs to offer just a little more to keep its classrooms filled with high-quality students.

Expanded greatly, it's the same paradigm telecom network providers are finding themselves in today. "We have a community of 18,000 individuals here, which can be compared to many towns in America," says Bernard Gleason, BC's executive director of Information Technology. "(This network) is a perfect example of the technology and integrated services that will exist someday in communities across the nation."

The "Project Agora" (Greek term for gathering place) network is the brainchild of C. "Jeff" Jeffers, BC's director of network services, a former engineer at Digital Equipment Corp. who was charged with the task of increasing the school's communication network while lowering costs. The project "only took 18 months to build, but five years to plan," says Paul Dupuis, assistant director of advanced technology at the Jesuit school. "This whole thing has been about 10 years in the making."

Students access the network via a unique wall plate that has voice, video and data connections. (Photo by Chuck Smith Photography.)
Network architecture

From the on-campus hub site, which is directly connected to Continental's Northeast fiber ring, fiber emanates to 18 nodes scattered throughout the campus, which in turn feed coaxial runs to "EagleNet" wall plates that are located adjacent to each student's dormitory bed. The project was by no means small in total, more than 6,000 rooms, 2,500 classrooms and 400 administrative offices were wired for voice, video and data (see Figures 1 and 2 for detail). The approach worked well for BC, where space was at at premium. "We didn't have room for more hardware closets," notes Dupuis. "This approach brought both space and cost savings."

All services run off a Nortel Meridian SL-100 SuperNode SE switch, for which BC wrote software to provide features like voice mail, three-way conferencing, call forwarding, call waiting and malicious call tracing. It's a network many small cities would envy, not to mention other schools.

One of the biggest challenges the school faced was interfacing the network with a wide variety of PCs and Macintoshes, as well as the software that was resident in the machines. "We've had problems with drivers, oddball software and people who weren't very computer savvy," notes Dupuis. So, this year, the school developed a set of minimum standards that student computers must meet to get connected.

For PCowners, BC recommends a Pentium-class processor, Windows 95 operating software, at least 16 megabytes of RAM (24 is preferred) and a hard drive of at least 1 gigabyte in size. Students who need Ethernet cards, cables or other items can purchase them through the school.

Before the HFC network was built, keeping all three campuses connected to the Internet was costing BC $24,000 a year for telephone-based modem lines. By routing traffic from the Newton and Weston campuses through the main Chestnut Hill facility over the cable network, the school is able to save money even after purchasing the LANcity modems, which list for about $5,000 each.

While the network was primarily constructed to tie the school's three separate campuses together, an important feature is one that allows students and faculty at least telephone access to the network even when they're off-campus. And if they happen to live in Continental's cable-TV service area, they have the added benefit of accessing the network and Internet at high speeds with LANcity's third-generation residential modem.

This type of connectivity, too, helps the school save money. According to Jeffers, BC spends about $80 a month for each phone line in its modem pool. With cable modems, the need for the telephone line is gone.

Phone home-cheaper

But for students and faculty who prefer to use the phone for voice communications, Boston College offers perhaps the lowest rates in the country. The school has leased two exchanges (20,000 total lines) from Nynex, which is why the school can assign each student a permanent phone number. A dial-up voice response interface to the switch provisions the service, so that students no longer have to schedule installation appointments with Nynex upon arriving at the campus. That means the school was able to connect 2,200 students in three days-a task that Nynex took several weeks to complete. "That is customer service," boasts Dupuis.

When it comes to long distance, even Candace Bergen would be impressed: Boston College students pay just 9 cents a minute during nights and weekends, and just 20 cents (22 cents outside Massachusetts) a minute during prime time. BC is able to offer rates so low because MCI and AT&T rebate the school 3 cents a minute for incoming long distance calls and 1 cent for outgoing calls.

Naturally, the students are taking advantage of both the data and voice plans. E-mail messaging has grown from about 8,000 per day a year ago to more than 35,000 a day. World Wide Web hits have skyrocketed from 150,000 per month to more than 500,000 per month over the same time. On the telephone side, BC has been forced to add T-1 lines to handle the load. "Student calling patterns (are) much higher than research would have shown," notes Dupuis, who also said there has been some blockage on the phone lines because of the demand.

Future plans

Now that the school has its students on-line, where does it go from here? Ultimately, the school would like to extend the service to all its graduate students as well as other schools around the country. As far as technology goes, BC administrators think they already have the model in place to do that.

"It's our opinion that only the broadband cable industry has the infrastructure to do that," says Dupuis.