Is the iPhone Too Popular at Duke?

The wireless network at the North Carolina university may have problems handling Apple's latest.
July 18, 2007

Duke University, the same institution that gave iPods to 1,600 incoming freshmen in 2004, may now be having problems with Apple’s iPhone.

In nine incidents since Friday -- the most recent Tuesday afternoon -- as many as 30 of university’s wireless routers have been knocked out of service for 10 minute intervals, after being flooded with as many as 18,000 requests per second that are believed to be coming from the iPhone's built-in 802.11b/g wi-fi adapter.

Because problems with the campus wireless network surfaced two weeks after Apple and AT&T Wireless stores began selling the $499 and $599 objects of techie wonder, troubleshooters in Duke’s Office of Information Technology put the two “coincident” events together to speculate that the iPhone was causing the wireless problems, Bill Cannon, the office’s manager of news and information, said. "It's not at all clear that it's even iPhones, but we still think it probably is."

The university's wireless network relies on routers from Cisco Systems, which, along with Apple, is working on the problem with Duke. "We don't yet know whether this is an iPhone issue, a server issue or an issue between the server and the iPhone," Cannon said yesterday afternoon. "And it might be a day or two or even a little more before we figure it out."

Cannon said Duke has not yet heard of other universities with similar problems. Peter DuBlois, director of media relations at Educause, an association for information technology professionals in higher education, said the group had not yet heard of the problem and would only act on it if it became widespread.

Because the problem seems unique to Duke, "our tech staff is working hard to troubleshoot and to figure out how we can fix whatever's wrong," Cannon said, noting that they were "too busy right now to be interviewed."

The problem on the Durham, N.C., campus is relatively small as of now, with about 150 iPhones registered on the Duke network and many faculty and students off-campus for the summer. "It's not like the wi-fi is crashing," Cannon said, "but we don't want that to be the case -- especially as the campus gets more crowded."

Scott Siddall, an affiliated scholar at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and former assistant provost and director of instructional technology at Denison University, said that the problems at Duke may not be the fault of the university, Apple or Cisco. "Any new device can cause some challenges," he said. "It's the inevitable bad combination of technologies that can sometimes cause unforeseen problems."

He added, "It's too bad that wireless technologies don't work seamlessly yet, but they don't ... I'm excited by the iPhone, so I really hope these kinks can be worked out."


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