Cal Poly looks toward a campus fully run by 5G


As Cal Poly campus data and network traffic ever-evolves, Wi-Fi and Ethernet capacities on-campus are slowly losing their ability to carry new information without stealing bandwidth from classrooms that need it, Vice President of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer Bill Britton said.

Wi-Fi can’t carry the amount of data traffic that Cal Poly is experiencing. As a consequence, devices connected to shared campus Wi-Fi might unknowingly be used to support bandwidth for other entities on the same network, which strains connectivity for students and faculty across campus, according to Britton.

“For Wi-Fi, we build a pipe, and then send as much traffic across the pipe as possible. But there’s limitations,” Britton said.

The ultimate goal is to have cloud-based networking performance, according to Britton, which is achievable with 5G.

This is why he planned to transform Cal Poly into a fully 5G campus this month. Britton and the Digital Transformation Hub (DxHub) have already begun the first phase of this deployment. They partially have finished a lab dedicated to testing and analyzing 5G, which is located on Radio Hill.

“What we’re trying to do with this laboratory – then to deployment – is to really look at how to be additive in the way we approach bandwidth on campus,” Britton said. 

Bandwidth is the measure of a network’s capacity to transmit data; the more bandwidth, the faster and better connectivity users will experience.

The deployment is in partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) – who advises and looks over the DxHub – and Federated Wireless, a company dedicated to optimizing shared spectrum. Other CSUs and school districts are also being invited to follow in Cal Poly’s footsteps to get a better understanding of 5G deployment before investing in their own.

According to Britton, 5G deployment on campus is still in its first phase, meaning that for the time being the network is private to the new lab. The next phase will make 5G accessible to all of campus and the phase after will expand to the greater San Luis Obispo area.

Britton and the DxHub are ultimately looking toward a four-to-one wave point reduction; essentially, one 5G antenna can operate an entire building instead of four 4G antennas – an extremely cost-effective solution for Cal Poly in the long run. 

They also hope to build a neutral host network center, which will allow regular cellular communications, 4G and 5G to all “talk” to each other, ensuring a blanket of seamless connectivity across campus.

The 5G project is working in tandem with the creation of a “Digital Twin” campus. A Digital Twin uses sensors to scan for real-time data and replicate physical spaces in a virtual realm, according to an article by Fierce Education. 5G deployment will aid use of the Digital Twin, which will require high amounts of bandwidth to operate.

Construction management and civil engineering departments prepare for Digital Twin operation using reality capture, according to construction management senior Enrique Duran.

Reality capture scans physical properties of a space to find data and can be conducted through three methods: drones, stationary equipment, or robotics, Duran said. The DxHub have flown drones and completed 360-degree video walkthroughs for data collection in the Linda Frost building, which will serve as a test project for the whole operation.

“It’s just like creating your physical environment and turning it into a video game – being able to interact with your space without having to physically be there is kind of the point,” Duran said.

A Digital Twin will allow all buildings on campus to connect to each other, stabilizing connectivity and creating new technological avenues to learn and teach with. The Twin can give the DxHub visualizations of data on signal strength in different buildings and use that information to install access points for more reliable connection.

Students may also access the Twin’s 3D models to learn about and operate new technological avenues such as autonomous farming and smart greenhouses, Digital Innovation Project Manager Miyu Nishii said. Faculty and staff can even interact with and reserve classrooms without having to actually enter the physical space.

The monetary cost of both 5G deployment and the Digital Twin project is small because of the fact that AWS is already working with DxHub. Overall, both operations will ultimately “bring a lot of value to the student experience” and “hopefully provide more interest in Cal Poly,” Nishii said.

Digital innovation at Cal Poly is bringing rapidly advancing technologies to the forefront of education, according to Britton. Students like Nishii and Duran are working hard to make that accessible for everyone, regardless of what they know about software development and cloud infrastructure. If anything, skepticism is helpful, according to Duran.

“Understanding where it doesn’t work is very critical. As just a normal student or a normal citizen, it’s good to be skeptical of it, ask those questions and understand it, because that could help us innovate and figure out where we need to improve,” Duran said.

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