College campuses across the United States are growing both in size and student population. An average university campus covers 440 acres and sees thousands of students traveling to, from and around its many buildings, year round. Recent increases in campus size and student population are leading to a corresponding increase in mobile data traffic, as most of these individuals have at least one mobile device, and in many cases, more than one.

While the majority of universities have deployed wireless networks, they need to prepare for the increase in mobile data traffic that will occur as their campuses grow. Classrooms, dormitories, stadiums and other sports facilities, meeting rooms, and administrative offices must be well-equipped to handle each person’s incoming and outgoing phone calls, e-mail transmissions and mobile Web browsing.

Between 2005 and 2015, it is estimated that each user will increase his mobile data traffic footprint by 450 times. One carrier, AT&T, claims to have seen a 5,000% increase in mobile-data growth between 2007 and 2009, which it attributes to data device subscriptions from devices like the iPhone. Extrapolating from these numbers and adding in the other major US carriers, predictions are that future growth will be quite astonishing. Over the next several years users also are expected to own even more Internet-connected mobile devices, and usage per device will increase. By 2015, the average mobile user is expected to send and receive roughly 16 GB of information annually across their mobile devices.

According to a recent survey, 99.8% of college students have a cell phone, which they use as their core means of communication and entertainment. This points to a need for a viable, campus-wide wireless infrastructure, like the one recently deployed by the University of Kentucky. Its campus, located in the heart of Lexington, boasts 716 acres — almost double the average — and serves more than 26,000 students, who are served by nearly 11,000 employees.

University officials set out to create a comprehensive system that would enhance access to wireless data services by the students and staff. Before rolling out the technology campus-wide, the university decided to trial the new system at four dormitories, in an attempt to improve mobile communications for students and staff within a specific area. The plan was to use the smaller sample size to provide insight on how such a system would benefit the rest of the university. The coordinators could then determine, based on the feedback of the sample group, whether the project would be worth implementing on a wider scale. The university decided to implement a distributed antenna system (DAS) to augment coverage for the sample group.

A DAS is a network of separate antenna nodes connected to a common signal source. It is easy to deploy, simplifies maintenance, is very reliable, offers high performance and is cost-effective. By dividing the signal among multiple antennas, a DAS provides a wider coverage range and allows access to expanded services. These benefits, along with the fact that the wireless operators supported the installation, made the DAS a good choice for this project. (Perhaps the wireless operators are paying attention to estimates such as those from In-Stat, which estimates that revenue from the DAS market will double between 2010 and 2015.)

The DAS implemented at the University of Kentucky consisted of repeaters for each carrier, and coaxial cables connected to multiple antennas to carry the signal to each location. The repeaters amplify the signals delivered by each operator, so that coverage can be provided in areas where structures and other natural obstructions, such as trees, interfere with signals. The signals then are sent to high-performance broadband coaxial cables for distribution to the flexible and efficient indoor and outdoor antennas.

DAS solutions like the one deployed at the University of Kentucky are especially useful because they do not require expensive transmission lines, special cabinets, oversized battery backups or extra cooling. The devices enable network sharing, and reduce capital and operational expenses. Because the repeaters are carrier-specific, they allow discrete, individual control for each operator and are preferable for many carriers.

Each system is a unique balance of coverage and capacity, and the designs are as much artistry as they are science. That is why it is important to implement a DAS that supports equipment of varying power levels and frequency bands, and to choose a system that has been prepared by someone who has significant experience in DAS design.

A fairly new innovation, the picocell — a compact cellular base station that covers a smaller area — also was used for this project. One of the university’s most important requirements for this project was to increase data rates and system capacity by using smaller coverage areas, which made picocells ideal for the dormitory trial. Analysts predict that picocells will be a major focus and growth area between now and 2015. They often are a better choice in a non-residential setting, compared with macro cells, because they offer targeted capacity and reduce interference issues often found in areas such as college campuses.

The integration of a DAS with picocell technology is becoming more common as owners and operators realize that it is more efficient to use a DAS to support 3G and older network technologies, and picocells, with their high-speed Internet backhaul capabilities, to support newer, data-intensive networks. By integrating both solutions, the university is well-equipped for the future — which is especially important as operators roll out 4G solutions that are replacing demand for 2G/3G networks.

The integrated DAS and picocell deployment ensures that the university’s system will be able to handle the resulting increase in mobile data traffic, ensure cellphone signals will not be blocked, and transfer data seamlessly. Indeed, the comprehensive wireless solution chosen for the university’s trial addressed the mobile data needs of its students by increasing coverage throughout the dormitories and reducing the number of dropped calls.

Clearly, most college campuses could benefit from a similar rollout, due to the increasing demands on their wireless LANs, particularly in the form of students and faculty using multiple devices. Universities big and small must modernize their infrastructures not only to enable effective wireless communication, which not only improves the quality of campus life, but also helps to recruit new students.

College campuses then are becoming an important market for wireless infrastructure providers. According to the DAS Forum, higher educational institutions are adopting DAS solutions in part because of the shift by one-quarter of the nation’s college students to wireless-only communications, a transition that in turn enables the school to decommission landlines, saving significant operational expenses.

Moreover, students are putting pressure on colleges and universities to upgrade their infrastructures. For example, Northern Kentucky University — located about 80 miles north of Lexington, just outside Cincinnati — recently received a loud public complaint in the form of an article in the school’s newspaper, The Northerner. Unable to make calls or send text messages, students called for a solution that would boost cell signals on the campus. In response, the university’s director of information technology said that he hopes to address the problem next spring.

Indeed, there are many schools like Northern Kentucky hunting for answers to address their wireless infrastructure issues. This is good news for vendors, who certainly will gain from the need for increased coverage and capacity on the nation’s college campuses. In turn, campuses will find a wealth of available options to help them cope with the exploding demand for mobile data capacity that they are experiencing.

Christian Barb is the senior director of global wireless solutions for Powerwave Technologies.