Wirelessly into the Future: 20 Years of WLAN at Münster University

When there's a problem with the WLAN, everyone has probably cursed silently at some point. Because, let's face it, WLAN is as important as the air we breathe in many respects: if it fails, it restricts us – enormously. At work, in our free time, even when wasting time. We have become accustomed to the freedom and flexibility that WLAN gives us as a matter of course in many areas of life. But the technology hasn't been around that long: it was only 20 years ago that WLAN enriched studies, research and teaching at Münster University, and a lot has happened since then.

When the history of WLAN began at Münster University, pen and paper still ruled the lecture halls and mobile phones were not smart, but clunky. However, the triumphant advance of the internet and the digital revolution it spurred had long since taken hold of the world of work, science and education. Computer workrooms were now everywhere, but "wireless LAN" in numerous lecture halls and seminar rooms? That was a novelty in 2001, a pioneering project in higher education that WWU IT implemented simultaneously with other universities and research institutions and with financial support from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

The "wireless LAN" was there, but the number of users was still small, because laptops did not usually have WLAN cards at that time and the two-step dial-in process was not entirely uncomplicated. This was remedied by loan cards that students could borrow from WWU IT, initially for short periods of time and later for longer, in order to connect them to their laptops and use the WLAN. In 2006, use was significantly simplified and improved: the two-step dial-in process was dropped and access was now possible in encrypted form. WLAN-capable end devices also became more affordable each year and smartphones spread rapidly.

These developments supported the continuous WLAN expansion, which was not only pursued in terms of space, but also in terms of density. Initially there were just 30 access points, but today there are almost 2,500 and by 2025 another 1,000 will be added. A so-called high-density WLAN infrastructure has been supplying all lecture halls and large seminar rooms since 2016, because this is where a particularly large number of people work in a small space. Lecture hall H1 alone has 16 access points to cope with the high number of users and the increased demands on the quality of the WLAN. Before the outbreak of the Corona pandemic, around 20,000 end devices were registered simultaneously in the WLAN at peak times, which corresponds to around 12,000 simultaneous users. This makes the WLAN – along with the email service – the most used IT service at Münster University today.

WLAN projects have also been implemented beyond the university's borders: since 2008, for example, Münster University has been participating in "eduroam", an initiative in which students and employees can dial into the WLAN at all participating institutions using their usual access data. Especially for conferences or semesters abroad, this system is uncomplicated and unbureaucratic. In 2017, "GuestOnCampus" was added as a new WLAN service for short-term guests and conference participants at Münster University.

WLAN statistics do not gather dust in the archives either, but are put to creative use. Since 2016, students have benefited from the "ULB Platzticker", which determines the utilisation of library workstations based on the WLAN logins at the associated access point. The ticker now covers 12 workspaces at Münster University and has already saved some students from going to overcrowded study rooms.

Crowded study rooms and lecture halls are probably on the wish list of students and lecturers at the moment, but the currently empty buildings are a stroke of luck for the WLAN expansion: measures such as the mapping of dead spots, cabling or the replacement of old access points, which are primarily carried out during the lecture-free period so as not to disrupt regular operations, can now be pushed ahead without restriction. On the way to providing the university with the latest WLAN standard "Wi-Fi 6" by 2025, which promises faster and more reliable network connections, WWU IT has definitely made a leap forward. This leaves more time for the future after the future. Because, as always, the next technology is already waiting.