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Mobile Device Proliferation Puts Pressure on College Residential Networks

The Internet of Things and more mobile devices per student drive colleges to get creative as they provide wireless access in residence halls.

Worldwide, more than 3 billion people use the Internet each day; smart watches and digital fitness trackers have become more common; and according to a 2015 re:fuel College Explorer study, students own an average of nearly seven devices. So it's no wonder IT leaders are feeling the heat to keep up with this ever-growing demand on their residential networks. 

"Even five years ago, I don't think people were predicting the incredible proliferation of the Internet of Things," said Dee Childs, chair of the ACUTA Environmental Scanning Committee and chief information officer at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. "It's clear we've entered a new era. So the portal has opened, and we've all gone in." 

Out of more than 360 higher education institutions that participated in the 2016 ACUTA/ACUHO-I State of ResNet Study of IT, business and housing officers, over 64 percent now provide 1 gigabit or more of bandwidth for each student on their residential networks, with 21 percent offering speeds upward of 7 gigabits. By comparison, about 26 percent of campuses provided 1 gigabit connections five years ago when the survey started. Now that so many students are digitally connected, a fast, reliable network can help convince students to pick one campus as their new home over another, Childs said.

While demand for bandwidth is constantly increasing, so too is its cost, which creates tension on university campuses about how to affordably meet student demand, Childs said. Sixty-two percent of survey respondents expected wireless networking costs to go up over the next two years, some by 5 percent or more. 

"From a macro-level, what that says is we've got more pressure to provide bandwidth," she said, "and bandwidth isn't free, so we have to figure out creative ways to satisfy that appetite."

Those creative ways often cause tension between academic freedom and cost savings. Most colleges have bandwidth management tools to keep usage under control, said Childs, but at the same time, officials don't want to prevent students from being able to access online resources when they need them.

While residence halls used to have a "port per pillow" wired policy for Internet access, they're revising their policies as more students want to connect wirelessly in their rooms. For the last three to five years, the University of Florida has had 1 gigabit wired connection per person, but increased wireless demand made IT staff realize they needed to adjust quickly to invest in wireless. 

"The challenge is, 'OK, where does the money come from all of a sudden?'" said Dave Connelly, network and systems administration manager in the University of Florida Division of Student Affairs.

Buildings aren't always set up for rewiring cable, and the costs can prohibit universities from adding two wireless access points in each room, he said. To finance its wireless project, the University of Florida changed its priorities and adjusted its policy. 

The university's IT staff had planned to upgrade the core networking switches, but recognized those switches could survive for another three to five years. So they shifted the money for that project to upgrade building-level switches, and buy wireless and access points. 

Instead of having one access point per person, they'll have one access point on an existing cable in each double room and will keep the wired network on the other existing cable. In between floors and rooms, a cloud of coverage from all the access points will fill in any gaps.