Netflix, Nintendo and Xbox, oh, my. Such is the life of a college student in 2018. Gone are the days when students flocked to the dorm room of the person who had the large TV.
Today, students come to college armed with not one or two devices, but as many as 10. They expect high-speed, reliable wireless connectivity all over campus—especially in their residence halls.
Consider the experience of Sumair Jhangiani, a student at an East Coast university with more than 12,000 students.
He found internet speed in his first-year dorm to be as fast as anywhere else on campus, but the router next to his room never worked. So Jhangiani, now a sophomore, had to walk four doors down to the next router to access Wi-Fi.
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“This happened when I was trying to connect only my laptop, or when I was trying to connect my phone, laptop and PlayStation at the same time,” he says.
“It reached a point early in the second semester when my roommate and I just decided to buy a router on Amazon and connect it to the Ethernet output that was in our room,’’ he says. “After that, we didn’t have connectivity issues.”
Student expectations in this era of streaming content and multiple devices are putting pressure on college IT departments to keep up with bandwidth demand.
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At one time, when wired internet was the standard, colleges adopted a “one-port-per-pillow” philosophy. Today, of course, wireless rules.
To deal with the issue, many schools are adding more Wi-Fi access points, setting usage limits or resorting to throttling—slowing down connectivity to control video streaming, a major source of bandwidth consumption.
The need for speed
The appetite for more bandwidth continues to grow. Video will consume 82 percent of all IP traffic by 2021, according to network equipment provider Cisco.
Colleges and universities may avoid throttling because they want students to feel comfortable in their living environment. After all, not having adequate Wi-Fi coverage could be a game changer when students choose a school.
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“Some CIOs say, ‘OK, students are on their own.’ My school of thought is: ‘You’re living here, it’s your home and you need your social life and entertainment and academics,’ ’’ says Heidi Crowell, CIO of Rivier University in New Hampshire. “We have Wi-Fi support for them, and you want to make sure the access points are updated.”
Crowell says 5G connectivity will soon be widespread, and Rivier wants to support that when students show up with the latest iPhones.
“Ubiquitous and robust Wi-Fi is a ‘must have’ for colleges to attract and retain on-campus students and to keep them engaged,’’ according to the “2018 State of ResNet” study from the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International.
Due to increased student demand for more technology resources on campus, “Schools are racing to keep up with the need for more significant bandwidth and seamless connectivity,’’ notes the report.
“As a result, many are stretching their budgets to expand Wi-Fi coverage and build sophisticated residential networks [ResNet] to meet students’ ever-growing expectations.”
Currently, 72 percent of colleges are staying competitive and meeting student demand by dedicating 1 GB or more of bandwidth to ResNet, a threefold increase since the study began in 2012. Almost one-third of campuses provide as much as 7 GB or more.
Already, over 50 percent of ResNet bandwidth at Washington State University is consumed by streaming content, mainly from Netflix and YouTube, says Craig Howard, director of administrative services information systems.
Staying ahead of student bandwidth demands is always an issue, requiring “planning and a bit of a crystal ball to stay out in front of demand,” Howard says, adding that this becomes more challenging when his department is “surprised” by factors ranging from “unexpected increases in enrollment and occupancy to new streaming services coming onto the market.”
Approaches to bandwidth management
Whether or not an institution has a bandwidth usage policy, at most institutions officials are considering related issues.
Temple University in Philadelphia doesn’t have a policy and doesn’t practice throttling, says T.J. Logan, associate vice president for student affairs. Officials got ahead of any potential bandwidth issues early on, he adds.
Each of the 11 residence halls has at least two 10 GB per second uplinks going directly to the switch. “Regardless of [a student’s] expectation of wireless, there’s a guaranteed wired port for every bed. Partly, it’s an insurance policy for us,” says Logan.
Being in north Philadelphia also helps, since the urban campus is “enclosed in a defined area” and buildings are not dispersed around the city.
Residence halls are no longer just a place where students go to sleep, but also a place for learning now that online courses are common, Logan adds.
As the ResNet report notes, the integration of technology in teaching and learning brings new and bigger challenges to bandwidth management.
At Temple, bandwidth management is “about having a strong approach and being able to invest in that approach, and do it right and do it quickly,” Logan says.
The approach means working toward ubiquitous wireless coverage to provide students with a seamless user experience. Higher capacity bandwidth in dorms is, he adds, “something we value in our spaces.”
To handle bandwidth needs in older buildings, wireless antennas are mounted to exteriors.
Staying on top of demand
The University of San Diego has a 3 GB pipe to the internet that was installed about two years ago, but now needs an upgrade, says Doug Burke, senior director of network infrastructure systems and services.
The institution has 11 residence hall building groups (34 actual buildings) and 951 dorm rooms, and bandwidth complaints were nonexistent between spring and fall this year, Burke says. “Usually, we get about two years out of our bandwidth.”
Adjustments can also be made in between major upgrades. “Gamers are the first to pop up on our radar if there’s a problem with the internet,’’ he says. In that case, IT has had to “bump up bandwidth and make changes to some of our bandwidth restrictions” to allow certain peer-to-peer connections gamers need.
The university does not do URL filtering or throttling—yet, Burke says. “We’re looking at that.”
The university used to follow the one-port-per-pillow philosophy, but a few years ago IT noticed those ports were not being used, so officials disconnected about 5,500 ports in residence halls, he says.
“Every year, we have to hook up about 100 from the ones we disconnected,’’ due to requests during move-in weekend.
At Rivier, IT leaders stay on top of demand, so it doesn’t become a headache for them or for students, says Crowell.
Prior to summer 2017, bandwidth was “terrible,” and access points in dorm hallways weren’t in the right spots or on the right frequencies, she says.
That meant students in the four residence halls “couldn’t even get onto the internet,” because the signal couldn’t penetrate cinder block walls.
So IT purchased about 100 low-powered access points to cover each of the 400 rooms. Now, students have “their own personal access point, so every room gets 100 percent coverage like a hotel room,” she says.
IT does throttle streaming, and students get 750 to 800 megabits per second—but that is shared among the whole campus. “So if somebody is streaming a ton of stuff, we’re not going to stop them at their device level but at the pipe level,’’ Crowell says.
As for Jhangiani, the student, this year the connectivity is better, he says, because he has reliable routers near his new dorm.
“However, the speed hasn’t changed at all and is a bit slower than I expected from a college dorm. The university hasn’t upgraded its Wi-Fi network at all, which is really disappointing.”
Jhangiani’s experience and expectations aren’t uncommon. So institutions nationwide are keeping bandwidth policies and upgrades on their radar.
Esther Shein is a technology-focused writer based in the Boston area.