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Opinion: Is Your Campus Network Ready for Prime Time?

As smart devices and classroom technology are increasingly integrated into the daily lives of network users, college and university IT departments must plan for more bandwidth and anytime, anywhere connectivity.

university network
As we continue to navigate our use of technology through the pandemic, it remains critically important to ensure your data networks are scalable and nimble enough to grow and evolve, particularly in higher education. Network infrastructure is not an investment made every five to seven years. Instead, institutions should plan for continual network hardware and software upgrades, ensuring funding is set aside to offset campus renovations and new building construction. While struggling campuses may be able to address network needs through one-time funding, eventually this approach can lead to a large price tag down the road which could be difficult to overcome.

In addition to sound funding strategies, it is also important to know precisely if your network is performing effectively, and to have a plan to address future growth and the evolution of network technology. To ensure you know the status of your wireless network, on-site wireless evaluations and assessments are essential, as opposed to a predictive network analysis. Conducting on-site wireless measurements coupled with precise recommendations for access points, switching, controllers and associated infrastructure can provide a solid road map for the future.

In addition, careful attention needs to be paid to the current and future technology requirements for teaching and learning. Addressing the needs of your resident student population in dorms and residence halls is essential. The activities of teaching, learning, research and recreation occur 24/7. The extraordinary technology needs of the COVID-19 pandemic added an entirely new level of consideration for effective and efficient network connectivity and performance.

So, what has changed for network needs over the past decade? What is the status of your network today and what are your needs in the next five to 10 years? Let’s take a closer look.

It may be helpful to look back at what network prognosticators were thinking almost 20 years ago. In a 2005 article, The Future of Networking in Higher Education, Richard Katz identified four driving forces as important factors. These include “logical connectivity, smart devices, convergence and personalized on-demand reliable services.”

Today, each of these factors are already built into most higher-ed networks, and certainly the explosion of smart devices has put an even heavier burden on network infrastructure. The pandemic has brought enormous change to virtual and hybrid teaching and learning, as well as in our daily work operations and productivity.

Katz wrote, “In the next few years, higher education’s IT leaders will be challenged to manage convergence on the technical, organizational, legal and social levels. Technically, we will need to deploy sufficient bandwidth to accommodate the inevitable rise in video traffic on institutional networks. We will need to deploy an infrastructure — or acquire one — that will support unified messaging.”

Since then, various articles have tried to estimate how many smart devices students own. A 2013 College Explorer study by re:fuel, a media and promotion firm, found the average 18- to 34-year-old college student owned seven tech devices. Some IT professionals began suggesting new large investments in network infrastructure were needed based on this perceived increase in device use by students.

While this increase in student ownership of smart devices was partially true, the reality of actual day-to-day use on college campuses was less. A 2020 EDUCAUSE Student Technology Report by Dana Gierdowski, D. Christopher Brooks and Joseph Gallenek found, “the average number of devices connecting to campus Wi-Fi in a given day is two per student, with an overwhelming majority of students reporting connecting two or more devices daily.” The two most prevalent devices students connect daily to a campus Wi-Fi appear to be a smartphone and a laptop, with approximately 80 percent saying they connected to two or more devices daily, which likely included gaming devices. While the number of devices has solidified to just a few per student, the number of hours connected to a wireless network can be substantial, along with the need for faster speeds and more bandwidth.

In a March 2022 article, Equipping Colleges with Sufficient Network Bandwidth Across Campus, Michael Durand, the director of higher education sales at CDW-G, said, “An institution’s network bandwidth affects more than the speed of a Netflix stream. It determines how many teachers and students will be able to teach and learn concurrently, without any unwanted technological disruptions. Reliable Internet connection is more than a nice-to-have option. With the increasing prevalence of hybrid and online classes taken by on-campus students, stable Wi-Fi is a necessity, making campus bandwidth sufficiency a high priority for colleges and universities.”

The pandemic certainly increased the need for campuses to widen their wireless coverage to accommodate connectivity to computer labs, libraries and open areas including parking lots. Due to the need to respond quickly to these wireless needs, some IT staff had to rely on a “predictive assessment” of where access points needed to be added or relocated. These changes reinforce the need to create a thorough wireless infrastructure plan, aided with an on-site wireless survey, solid funding plan and deployment timeline.

So, what are the key strategies higher education can focus on to plan for campus network infrastructure?

1. Conduct on-site network wireless coverage reviews for academic and administrative buildings, including exterior access. Update this information when building remodeling and new construction occurs. Consider outside networking consultants to perform an on-site review. Engage your campus in-house networking staff with the consultants, so there is a solid transfer of knowledge during the process. Purchase any necessary network diagnostic tools for your IT staff so they may conduct their own tests.

2. Develop a comprehensive network funding model to be reviewed annually to ensure accuracy and equitability for end users. Utilize one-time funding carefully when making new investments, and make certain a sound replacement strategy is in place to cover these purchases. Ensure your plan includes wire and wireless equipment including switches, controllers, access points, all related infrastructure, software and maintenance contracts.

3. Survey the academic, administrative and student network needs annually. Be sure to consider unique campus events which may require additional interior and exterior wireless coverage.

4. Make certain you have qualified and certified networking staff, and work diligently to retain critical employees. Provide consistent network training and certification opportunities for your staff. If employees do leave the organization, ensure you have documented all important networking information and institutional knowledge.

5. Repeat, reinforce and update items 1-4.

While it can be difficult to precisely predict the future of networking for higher education, we can certainly count on the trends of needing more bandwidth, faster speeds, higher coverage and density, the use of more sophisticated smart devices, and the need of anytime, anywhere connectivity. Plan carefully now and your network will be prepared for prime time.
Jim Jorstad is Senior Fellow for the Center for Digital Education and the Center for Digital Government. He is a retired emeritus interim CIO and Cyber Security Designee for the Chancellor’s Office at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He served in leadership roles as director of IT client services, academic technologies and media services, providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. Jim has experience in IT operations, teaching and learning, and social media strategy. His work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR, and he is a recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow and was chosen as one of the Top 30 Media Producers in the U.S.