Europe's largest wi-fi hotspot

Have you ever tried to hop on the Internet with your wireless device, only to find you’ve left the hot zone way too fast. You go in and you go out and you begin to wonder if there’s any mobility in mobility.

One man has helped build an answer to that problem. Prof. Peter Apers is scientific director for the Centre for Telematics and Information Technology at University of Twente in the Netherlands and chairman of the steering committee that created a giant hot spot with the assistance of some very large technology companies that are using it as a test bed for wireless access to mobile devices. In fact, the campus of the University of Twente is Europe’s Largest wi-fi hotspot.

The whole campus area has been turned into a large WLAN hot spot, and experiments are done with mobile telephony and the Internet, using standards like Bluetooth.

Prof. Apers took talked recently about their cutting edge network.

Q: Tell us about your giant wireless hot spot.

Apers: The University of Twente is 350 acres with 6,000 students. We have 650 access points that cover both the buildings and outside. It’s a park-like campus where students can access the Internet while sitting at the pool.

Q: Why was this large wireless network built?

Apers: In particular, it was built to familiarize students with communication and information technology. We have a 100 megabit connection to the offices and to the national network we have a gigabit connection. It’s also important for our students to use this wireless network from a research point of view. We want to facilitate their creativity in developing new applications.

Q: It is exciting to think you can take your laptop out of the classroom and sit under a tree to do your work. How long has this hot spot been in place and what uses are starting to emerge?

Apers: It’s been in place for a couple of months. All the students have laptops. You can see this is changing the building. It’s not a traditional classroom. There are now large areas where students gather together or talk to the teacher individually – and they take their laptop everywhere.
We’re also trying to get rid of the idea of the traditional library. We want to turn it into “edu-cafes”.” It’s more of an informal environment where students sit together, have some coffee or tea and, at the same time, use their wireless access to the Internet to do their homework individually or in teams.

Q: Do you see this wireless hot spot as saving the university money with fewer facilities being built? What’s the long-term benefit?

Apers: There is a cost savings from the management point of view. Right now we have large rooms with rows of PC’s. We’re getting rid of those. If you have a wireless environment, it takes less space.

Q: I’m sure it can be expensive to build the largest wireless hot spot in Europe. Did you have some help?

Apers: Actually, we have sponsorship from the Dutch government. Because we invested in our fixed network, they added some money to allow us to implement the hot spot. The largest part of the hot spot was implemented by IBM and Cisco. Part of it is donated by Intel.

We have small student companies that are working on new ideas that will use the wireless hot spot and these major companies like IBM are very much interested in pursuing these ideas.

Q: Are you seeing non-students sneaking on to your beautiful park-like campus and enjoying an afternoon of wireless surfing?

Apers: The front layer will be open to everybody to use. After that you will be connected to your own Internet service provider. There is another program that is setting up hot spots in various cities in the Netherlands. In the end, everyone will be using wireless. Our case at the university is just an experimental one.

Q: What kind of applications to see being created from this wireless research?

Apers: One of the applications is a program called MobilHealth that is funded by the European Union. The idea is if you have a person who has have an accident in the street and is taken to a ambulance, they put sensors on the body and then establish a wireless connection to the hospital where the specialists can monitor and give instructions on what to do with the patient en route. This is the kind of applications we foresee.

Q: As you look out into the future, is wi-fi going to be how most people make a connection to the Internet?

Apers: It will always be a combination of wi-fi and 3G. In the Netherlands there are a lot of people trying to create hot spots and my impression is they are going to grow pretty large and they’re going to share them.

Q: There has been a bit of controversy in United States about hot spots. Analysts are saying that they are not financially viable – especially those free hot spots – because there’s no continuity in a revenue model for a wide network. Do you see that affecting Europe?

Apers: First, I think it is important to get a clear idea of what applications are of interest. In the beginning of mobile phones, the big question was also what the application would be. First people said they would never use a mobile phone because if they want to use the phone they’re either in their office or at home. Now almost everybody in Europe has a mobile phone.

Equally SMS (Short Message Service) text messaging is extremely popular with high school kids. The telephone companies are making more money from SMS than normal phone calls.

It’s very difficult to predict the applications for wireless. We are now in a phase of trying to understand what it means to have wireless Internet access. I think in a couple of years, when we have a better idea what the application will be, then you’ll get business models and more companies that will invest in it.

For more information about the wireless campus, visit

Dana Greenlee is co-host, producer and engineer of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based radio and Webcast show featuring technology news and interviews.