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The Joys And Frustrations Of Wireless Printers

It's that time of year again, when college kids and parents swarm campuses far and wide for the start of the fall semester. At SU, we call it simply "Opening," and like our peer institutions, we put a lot of time and manpower into making sure that Opening goes well for students getting connected. For me, this year's Opening has multiple dimensions. I'm the university's primary wireless network administrator, the parent of a college student and Tier 3 support, otherwise known as the poor unfortunate that gets the connectivity problems that are too weird for my colleagues to handle.

Like my contemporaries in other schools, I've watched our wired network usage in the dorms drastically decrease as our once-proud Ethernet networks become high-speed gaming frameworks as clients demand portability and mobility out of their computers. Laptop usage soars, desktops are harder to find, and there is a proliferation of all sorts of wireless devices under the sun.

And then there are there wireless printers.

Printers have come a long way, and they are their own study in technological evolution. The personal computer has revolutionized the world, but the personal printer has been right there in lockstep, getting more feature-rich and less expensive in every incarnation.

A quick check of the online BestBuy catalog shows just how much printer you can get for your money these days: fifteen printers are less than $50, and sixty-six others are less than $100. Many of these copy, scan and fax in addition to printing. Many of them are wireless. That should be good, no? The world has gone wireless--shouldn't I be able to gift my son with a nice wireless printer for his dorm room and feel good about supporting his wireless lifestyle? Oh, if it were only that simple.

Institutionally, we have put a tremendous amount of time, money and training into growing and sustaining a top-shelf wireless network for everyone on campus. We try to stay on top of emerging needs and accommodate pretty much any reasonable use case, but wireless printers tend to be the odd nut that still hasn't been cracked. I know that my school is not alone. If I give my son a nice, new wireless HP, Epson or Lexmark printer, I'm probably doing him and the campus wireless network a lot more harm than good.

Here's where I call a time-out to declare that I am not bashing wireless printers--these devices kick-butt in the home or small business. But overlay dozens or hundreds of wireless printers that all come up at full power on the same channel, with the same network name on the carefully designed and tuned campus wireless network, and you have the makings for big trouble.

We're talking Interference. Confusion. Misunderstanding. The need to change from the campus network to your own private WLAN to print. The inability of any wireless printer I've found to successfully use enterprise security protocols (some high-end office-grade printers do claim to things like WPA2/802.x enterprise, but I've yet to get one to work), and the knowledge that even if they could, I can't figure out how we'd keep hundreds of students from hosing each others' printers without some new-to-us network magic.

So what's the outcome for all of those students who do bring wireless printers into an environment that truly is a bad fit for these devices? Again, like other schools, we hand out a lot of USB cables, teach people how to disable the wireless adapter on the printers and try to explain to them why this is what it is. We explain about printing to computing lab printers. We watch our wireless management system logs fill up with printer-default network names picked up by our APs as interfering devices and try to find them and mitigate them. And we hope that someday in the near future, we can perhaps work with the printer manufacturers and find some easy, scalable solution that actually fits the typical university WLAN environment to allow people to leverage personal wireless printers as easily as we can accommodate all the other wireless devices on the market.

Don't even get me started on wireless projectors.