“If I can get excellent Wi-Fi at home, I better be able to get it on campus”
“Wi-Fi needs to be like air and electricity. I shouldn’t have to think about it, but it’s always there”
These two statements by prospective college students during recent campus recruiting visits demonstrate how important a good Wi-Fi signal can be to student life. Done right, high quality reliable Wi-Fi in the residence hall contributes to a memorable student campus experience. It may not draw lots of attention when it is working, but when the Wi-Fi service dips, students take notice and the reaction can get ugly.
Inadequate campus and residential Wi-Fi can lead to a range of bad consequences for a school. When the Wi-Fi is generally good, but goes down intermittently, students typically just complain privately. If the quality remains poor, they will likely decide to live off campus. Because Wi-Fi is such an important part of the student experience, bad Wi-Fi can leave a lasting impression, affecting how students feel about their school even after they have left.
In the worst case, the quality of resident Wi-Fi can be a factor in the student’s decision of which school to attend. Wi-Fi access and network performance are now usually visible during campus visits. If it is poor, or if enrolled students are complaining about it, that fact will not go unnoticed by the visiting prospect. There are numerous forums, such as Yik Yak, where students can visibly express their displeasure with a substandard campus Wi-Fi network.
The Role of Wi-Fi in the Residence Hall
Wi-Fi has now become much more than simply a medium for shifting mobile data communication off the cellular network. In the past, most PCs and laptops may have connected to the network via Ethernet, but that connection is now provided mostly by Wi-Fi. With the advent of the flipped classroom, educational content has shifted heavily to video, driving up bandwidth needs outside of the classroom. Students also rely on their mobile devices for news and entertainment, as well as communication.
Managing The Residence Hall Network Experience
To optimize the user experience for the majority of residents, some restrictions or extra charges are typically imposed on uber-users, the set of students whose bandwidth needs tend toward infinite. As discussed at the EDUCAUSE conference, gaming can be restricted to wired network access, to preserve Wi-Fi bandwidth. Schools that do allow game consoles on their Wi-Fi may forbid certain console features, such as access to Netflix and Hulu. The Campus Computing Project survey found that 25% of schools charge an added fee to uber-users who consume over 20 GB/week.
According to this year’s Annual State of the ResNet Report, more than half (51.5%) of colleges and universities now dedicate at least 1 Gb/s specifically to their residential networks. More than half (55%) of the schools with in-house Internet limit or shape bandwidth across their residential networks. To meet the demands of their residential networks, 54% of the schools had an increase in funding for these networks. That number was only 38% the year before.
Comings and Goings Of Wired Connections
It is safe to say that some form of wired network access will continue in use on college campuses for the foreseeable future. Wired Ethernet is likely to maintain a role with student gaming and video consoles to keep that load off Wi-Fi. At least for the short-term, there are still many PCs that best connect to the network via wired Ethernet. The rule of thumb in residence halls has been one wired port per pillow.
Telephone land lines, though, are no longer generally needed nor provided in the residence halls. Schools typically ask each student about their preferred channel for emergency communications; email, text, or voice to their mobile phone.
Cable TV feeds may be next to go as students switch over to Netflix and other Internet streaming sources. In the short term, however, students still feel they require cable TV access for sports and local TV programming. This may be behind a blip in cable TV usage; one survey showed that cable TV wiring actually increased from 2012-2014.
Is There Any Alternative To Campus Residence Wi-Fi?
Do not get fooled into believing that a special contract with a 4G carrier could eliminate the need for Wi-Fi. In the 4G campus contract scenario, a mobile carrier has students register their devices with the mobile carrier to use 4G/LTE data. On the surface, the rates seem worth consideration. However, the mobile wireless signal is rarely available everywhere inside the buildings without special beacons. Even where the signal is accessible, the speeds prove inconsistent and inferior to Wi-Fi speeds. Furthermore, not all devices are equipped with 4G. The final cost or pricing of these 4G contracts proves to be notoriously hard to predict. In the end, this approach only encourages students to activate their own private access points, which can bring on a nightmare of RF interference and unreliability. The overall technology pricing to provide 1 MB over LTE is much higher than the cost 1 MB over Wi-Fi.
Another trap to avoid is turning your residence halls into an RF jungle by permitting, or worse yet, encouraging students to provide their own Wi-Fi. Many schools initially ignored Wi-Fi in the residence halls, leaving students no alternative other than setting up their own hotspots. Incoming freshman had no clue what sort of gear they needed and the resulting chaos caused rampant interference and unreliable connections. Managing RF signals requires careful planning and thorough understanding of all the subtleties. Leaving students to add their own access points and routers is a sure way to create signal interference, making no one happy.
How to Insure Your Campus Wi-Fi Provides the Best Student Experience
Providing quality residence hall Wi-Fi starts with a site survey to understand where to optimally locate the Wi-Fi access points. The access points themselves should be easy to manage and capable of providing wired-like performance. Since students will be bringing their own devices onto the network, a comprehensive BYOD dashboard is required that can implement policies for which devices are permitted and what resources, including bandwidth, each device can access.
In order to maintain a quality Wi-Fi experience for the students, you need a means to monitor the actual network performance. Network application analytics give you the ability to recognize when the network starts to get congested, as well as spot rogue devices. And if performance ever does become a problem, you’ll be able to tell if it is within the campus or caused by your broadband Internet connection, or if it is due to a slow remote server.
In conclusion, the quality of the campus residential Wi-Fi network can be an important factor in recruiting students, insuring they have the best possible campus experience, and may even leave a lasting impression of their school experience. Delivering consistent-quality, high-performance Wi-Fi starts with easily-managed reliable access points, network management software with BYOD access control, and network application analytics.