Texas Universities Broadening Bandwidth for Students, Researchers

While most U.S. schools are working to expand their Web-based course offerings, Texas universities are widening bandwidth on campus for students and faculty, who increasingly use the Internet for just about everything.

by Benjamin Wermund, Houston Chronicle (TNS) / December 1, 2014

At a recent town hall meeting, University of Houston students spoke out about their needs on the increasingly residential campus.

"They said, 'We don't care if our rooms are painted, just make sure our Internet is set up,'?" said Dennis Fouty, associate vice chancellor for information technology. "Students on campus today have never known a world without the Internet."

Higher education is moving online in more ways than one. While most U.S. schools are working to expand their Web-based course offerings through Massive Open Online Courses and other programs, Texas universities are widening bandwidth on campus for students and faculty, who increasingly use the Internet for just about everything - from doing research and homework, to streaming movies and socializing. Many have joined together to build thousands of miles of fiber optic cable across the state. In Houston, a group of schools that includes UH and Rice is expanding its shared bandwidth - mostly used for research - tenfold.

"Everybody's tapping the heck out of their smart phones these days and the amount of traffic in and out of Texas is frankly astronomical," said Mike Phillips, director of a consortium of Texas colleges and other public organizations known as the Lone­star Education and Research Network that built the state's fiber optic superhighway. "The demand for bandwidth is like water hitting the desert - you can't quench the thirst."

Most universities connect to two types of Internet service. There's the commodity Internet - what most people use to access social media, send emails, shop, stream videos and more. Then there's a separate, much faster research-focused network.

Research gets its own stream because massive data sets, many shared among other universities, consume massive amounts of bandwidth. Some research projects communicate at the terabyte level. By comparison, the average email is less than a megabyte - one millionth the size of a terabyte - and high-definition video on Netflix streams at about five megabytes a second.

Providing Internet access for thousands of students and faculty can be costly. UH, for instance, pays $250,000 a year for traffic on its commodity stream.

State, U.S. systems linked

So in Texas, dozens of universities and other organizations formed the Lonestar Education and Research Network to build 3,200 miles of fiber optic cable - essentially the "superhighway" that carries information across that research-focused stream - and 30 facilities housing servers and routers that serve as on-ramps.

That system, which connects to a much larger national network, expands regularly, as the amount of information streaming into the state continues to grow exponentially, Phillips said.

In the third quarter alone, nearly nine pedabytes - a pedabyte is 1,000 terabytes - of data flowed into the consortium's network, Phillips said.

Just as the state system connects to the national system, smaller local systems connect to it. In Houston, UH, Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine and other schools built their own network. Those schools are preparing to boost bandwidth tenfold by adding more cable and expanding the port that connects to the larger state system.

The expansion will be paid for in part with a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Currently, the local consortium taps into 10 gigabits of bandwidth. In four months, that will be expanded to 100 gigabits. The more bits of bandwidth a system has, the more bytes it can carry. UH pays about $50,000 a year to be part of the consortium.

"We want to make sure our researchers are able to perform their experimentation, move stuff around," said Kamran Khan, vice provost for information technology at Rice. "Data is growing at a pretty rapid clip as the storage becomes a lot cheaper. … Now you're able to have many, many more lanes on that superhighway."

WiFi connection problems

But at college campuses, which function essentially like small cities, research is just part of what people use the Internet for. The demand for all types of online services is growing, and universities have had to respond. This year, UH expanded its commodity stream by 50 percent, to six gigabits.

The statewide network has reduced the pressure on the commodity stream, which is dominated by just a few services, including Netflix, Google and Apple.

The statewide consortium has partnered with those services to send their data - including video streams, Apple iOS updates and Google searches - along the research highway.

"As it relates to student consumption of bandwidth, those are important elements," Phillips said. "Is it as important as the role that we spend in particle physics or cancer research or astronomy or helping NASA or the National Weather Service? No not at all, but it's still a significant part of the bandwidth demand."

The expansion came as good news to UH students, some of whom complained that WiFi on campus can be spotty, especially walking from building to building, and Internet streams can get clogged when demand is high.

"If it's a day when you sign up for classes, it's slow," said Mary Beth Brunson, a 20-year-old restaurant and hotel management junior. Brunson, who doesn't live on campus, said she stays home at her south Houston apartment on those days to use her own Internet connection.

©2014 the Houston Chronicle

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