Students, college face off over Wi-Fi

University of Texas bans students' private Wi-Fi hot spots, saying they block access to a campus wireless network.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
A disagreement over public and private wireless networks is stirring up high-tech tension at the University of Texas at Dallas.

The university administration issued a new policy this week that bars students from running their own private Wi-Fi networks in campus housing. The unregulated hot spots are interfering with the university's own wireless service, which is offered freely to students and staff, campus technology administrators said.

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Some students have protested, saying that only federal regulators have the ability to govern how they use the wireless spectrum. The issue remains unresolved as the university waits for students to pull the plug on their Wi-Fi hot spots, and for now, administrators aren't backing down.

"The analogy I use is that you, or anyone else, can go out and buy the highest-power stereo system that you want to have, bring it in, and play it to your heart's content--until the point where you turn it up and it bothers your neighbors," said Bill Hargrove, the university's executive director of information resources. "It seems to me there is an obligation to protect the rights of students to use university resources."

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This kind of tension is likely to arise with more frequency in the future, as wireless services using unregulated parts of the airwaves proliferate to the point of ubiquity--and perhaps to the point of interference with each other. Many businesses already block employees from running their own unauthorized wireless access points, fearing security risks or conflicts with their own services.

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Devices that use regulated wireless spectrum, such as cell phones or televisions, have little chance of running into this kind of invisible conflict, since each type of device is given its own guaranteed slice of the airwaves.

But Wi-Fi is more analogous to old-style CB radio. A computer looking for a Wi-Fi connection on a given "channel" will connect to the strongest signal available, making it difficult for someone to choose to connect to an access point that is farther away or weaker.

Some hackers have taken advantage of this by creating "rogue access points" in public Wi-Fi hot spots, such as coffee shops or airports. They typically use tools to knock wireless Web surfers off the public networks, then capture passwords and credit card accounts by turning on their own strong access point and tricking the surfers onto a spoofed log-in page.

In the University of Texas case, some students signed up for fast cable modem or DSL (digital subscriber line) service instead of using the slower campus wireless network. To defray those costs, they share their connections with other students by setting up private Wi-Fi based networks.

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Hargrove said students that want to do this are still allowed to run wireless networks using 802.11a technology. Most commercial Wi-Fi products, including those used by the campus network, use the more common 802.11b or 802.11g standards.

More than 90 percent of campuses in the United States have some form of wireless networking, according to the Campus Computing Project, which conducts an annual study of information technology in higher education.

CNET News.com's Marguerite Reardon contributed to this story.