UW News

June 25, 2009

UW to get six cell phone towers, part of new Strategic Mobile Initiative

News and Information

Coming soon to the UW: improved cell phone coverage, as well as sizable discounts for individuals and offices that use either T-Mobile or AT&T.

Believe it or not, currently there is just one cell phone tower for one carrier (at the BB tower in Health Sciences for AT&T) on the entire Seattle campus. Whatever reception exists is a product of towers located nearby in the U District. This has resulted in coverage that ranges from acceptable to nonexistent, depending on your location.

However starting this fall, coverage will improve for AT&T and T-Mobile networks. A total of six new towers will come online, with construction beginning in July.

Two years ago, the UW began looking at the options for supporting the growing number of mobile devices used by faculty, staff and students. “The UW decided to become a leader in supporting mobility,” says David Morton, director of mobile communications for UW Technology. “We needed better coverage, but also wanted to establish deeper relationships in partnership with cell carriers and others.”

The University worked with all the major carriers in discussing its aims, and developed a competitive procurement process that resulted in the selection of AT&T and T-Mobile as preferred partners.

The UW community will realize significant discounts from the two partners, whether the phone contracts are through UW accounts or paid by individuals. AT&T will discount its rates by 21 percent to UW-paid phone packages, by 18 percent to employees for personal phones, and 10 percent to students (with 200 free text messages a month). T-Mobile is offering 15 percent discounts to everyone. Even individuals who currently have contracts with one of these companies can take advantage of the discounts. For more information, see http://www.washington.edu/cac/care/phone/cellular.pers.html.

The resulting relationships are costing the University nothing. Indeed, the UW will receive revenue in the form of lease payments and administrative fees. The companies will be investing more than two million dollars in their cell phone infrastructure on campus.

“We went through a very thorough process in deciding on the location of the towers,” Morton says. “This process involved the carriers, UW Technology, Campus Engineering, Capital Projects, Real Estate and Environmental Health & Safety.”

The University has taken steps to assure that its locations meet or exceed all safety requirements promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission. And the cell providers will continue to monitor signal strength in working areas that are closest to the towers to assure safety.

Creating better coverage is simply the first step in what Morton calls the Strategic Mobile Initiative. The next phase involves deeper partnerships not just with carriers but with other players in the mobile device industry, including Apple and Microsoft. “We want to build a strong platform to support the University’s mission,” Morton says. For example, there are many activities that researchers undertake which could benefit from specialized mobile applications, and conversations over future iPhone applications are already under way. “We know we can have a very direct influence on products” from many companies, Morton says. “We’re eager to have leading thinkers at the UW hook up with major participants in the industry.”

The explosive growth in mobile device usage has been a major factor in the new initiative. Devices that didn’t exist two years ago, such as the iPhone and iPod Touch, now represent 20 percent of all the Wi-Fi uses at the UW, and their use continues to grow.

When the project is completed, new towers will be sited on Haggett (for both carriers), Suzzallo (T-Mobile), Mary Gates (AT&T), Chemistry (T-Mobile) and the BB tower (T-Mobile). Several towers are planned to be operational by the start of the fall quarter, with others coming online shortly thereafter. The carriers have agreed to work to eliminate any dead zones that might remain.

Campus cell coverage by other carriers should not affected by the initiative.