Student demand for wireless network access is set to increase significantly, forcing universities to offer the facility to remain competitive, experts predict.
Tony Chabot, of Birmingham University's computing department, makes the prediction in a Joint Information Systems Committee-funded report on student portable computing published recently.
He points out that like the telephone in the 1960s and the mobile phone in the 1990s, wireless networks have been relatively expensive but are rapidly becoming affordable.
An ever-increasing number of students and staff are using laptops, and the ability to access the internet and files without plugging into a network socket, is becoming more appealing.
Until now, wireless networks have not been able to compete with their fixed equivalents in terms of speed or price per connection but a recently agreed standard for wireless networking is likely to force prices down.
One forecast predicts that the US market will grow from $771 million (£537 million) in 1999 to almost $2.2 billion in 2004.
In some universities, wireless is already proving cheaper than conventional networks. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, situated in five buildings in Bloomsbury, London, is one such institution.
Network support manager Sheena Wakefield said that the new standard, combined with the launch of a wireless local area network product by 3Com, last year led the school to pilot a wireless solution.
The solution involves installing cards for laptops and wireless access points that can support up to 63 computers simultaneously. Two access points have been installed in the library and another in the refectory.
Ms Wakefield said the technology had been extremely reliable and the students involved in the trial had found the system easy to use.
Malcolm Read, JISC secretary, said wireless networks were starting to come of age but were not always scaleable and could suffer from crossed signals.
He said that they remained better suited to places such as halls of residence where there were low densities of students, rather than lecture theatres.
JISC would closely study the US experience, where a growing number of institutions are installing wireless networks, he said.
Details: Student Portable Computing by Tony Chabot can be read at: