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At What Cost Wi-Fi?

Students expect wireless internet access everywhere on campus, and colleges and universities pay millions to provide it.

April 17, 2018
 
Ohio State University

Gaming consoles, tablets, smart speakers, minifridges that text you when you run out of beer -- these are just some of the internet-connected items students are now bringing with them to their residence halls.

Not every device is for entertainment, however -- phones, tablets and laptops might (at least sometimes) get used for academic purposes.

But with so many Wi-Fi-enabled devices, colleges are struggling to keep up with students’ expectation that wireless internet should be free, fast and everywhere.

“We used to hand out a thousand ethernet cables each year; now students don’t need them,” said Christopher Waters, chief information officer at Elon University. The institution is midway through converting all its residence halls to wireless only.

Instead of bringing two or three wireless devices with them to college, students are now bringing eight or nine, said Waters. “When students come to campus, particularly at private institutions, they expect Wi-Fi to be ubiquitous.”

With such high demand for bandwidth, how can institutions avoid scenarios where students trying to work are slowed down by their neighbors playing video games? At Elon, the institution has created two Wi-Fi networks -- one for primary devices like mobile phones and printers, and a second just for smart devices and gaming consoles.

Keeping up with the latest Wi-Fi standards is a constant challenge, said Waters. Elon has tried to update its network in phases as the campus has grown, thinking about what future needs might be. Performing a campuswide upgrade on Elon's 636-acre campus could quickly become an "unwieldy" project, Waters said.

Josh Piddington, vice president and chief information officer at Rowan College at Gloucester County, a community college in New Jersey with a 266-acre campus, said that he had taken a similar approach -- updating Wi-Fi space by space to avoid a campuswide overhaul.

Prior to 2010, Piddington said, Wi-Fi at Rowan was spotty. Now every building has Wi-Fi, but with more students using multiple wireless devices, heavy-traffic areas such as the cafeteria have experienced high demand.

Classrooms, too, have had issues, said Piddington. As more students bring laptops and phones to class, internet speeds go down. The college recently upgraded the Wi-Fi in its nursing auditorium after doubling the size of its nursing class, at a cost of around $3,000 for new wiring and hardware. “As a community college, we negotiate hard on those costs,” he said.

At some of the largest institutions in the country, however, Wi-Fi upgrades can run into millions of dollars. Last week Ohio State University’s Board of Trustees approved a $18.6 million campuswide update.

The project will improve and expand Wi-Fi access across Ohio State's 1,777-acre campus. Inside buildings, the number of wireless access points will increase from 10,000 to 23,000. In outside areas, access points will increase from 32 to 1,000. The upgrade has garnered significant media attention, because it will also bring Wi-Fi to the stands of the Ohio Stadium, which seats over 100,000 fans.

The update is not a case of athletics over academics, stressed Diane Dagefoerde, deputy chief information officer at Ohio State University. “This is a comprehensive strategy. It’s about creating a seamless experience across campus,” she said.

The University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus also embarked on an ambitious multimillion-dollar Wi-Fi upgrade five years ago. The $24.5 million project is now nearing completion. “What we really wanted was wall-to-wall, basement-to-penthouse coverage,” said Andy Palms, executive director of information and technology services infrastructure at Michigan.

The project started with the library, followed by heavily used public spaces, then the rest of the academic, residential and research buildings on campus. Though the focus has been on interior spaces, Palms said it had become clear in the last year that students also want Wi-Fi outside.

The upgrade at Michigan has required meticulous planning. In some areas the wired network had to be extended, and new wireless access points needed new power supplies. Work had to be done with minimum disruption to the campus, and working in heritage buildings (which are numerous at Michigan) was expensive. But the university estimates that it won't need to upgrade the network again for another five years, and next time it will require much less work and cost half as much.

Unlike Ohio State, the University of Michigan doesn’t have any immediate plans to put Wi-Fi in the stands of its stadium. The university has done tests, but they didn’t go very well. Because the stadium is partially underground, with no tiered structure to attach Wi-Fi access points to, the work would be disruptive and expensive -- likely in the range of several million dollars. The Sports Business Journal has reported that many college football stadiums face similar challenges.

Chad Kainz, an educational consulting director and principal strategist at Blackboard, said that it is difficult to talk today about a quality student experience without also considering the digital experience that an institution offers.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, we were investing in wired networks and ‘ports-per-pillow,’” he said. “Now we don’t talk about ports anymore -- we think about Wi-Fi coverage, wireless bandwidth and equitable access.” He added, “Wi-Fi on campus is as essential as light and water.”

Meeting students’ expectation that they’ll be able to stream Netflix shows or tweet at football games is important from a recruitment perspective, but Kainz notes that Wi-Fi is also essential to many teaching and learning experiences.

Students might have data plans on their phones, but they often don’t have the bandwidth to access the digital content that many of their classes require, said Kainz. “If students and faculty struggle with fundamental access to what they need for learning and teaching, the student experience is adversely impacted and diminished.”

Joretta Nelson, senior vice president at Credo, a higher education consulting firm, said that investments in technology are important to signal to prospective students and their families that an institution is progressive and aware of students’ desires. But she agreed that keeping student learning at the center of investments is vital, particularly if resources are scarce.

Improving the digital learning experience was a key motivation for the Ohio State upgrade, said Dagefoerde. The university recently launched a Digital Flagship initiative that will see each student receiving an iPad Pro that will form an integral part of their learning. “It can’t happen without a robust Wi-Fi network,” said Dagefoerde.

Amy Novak, president of Dakota Wesleyan University, said investments in Wi-Fi at her institution have been driven in part by student survey feedback. Students living in residence halls were asked if they would be willing to give up cable TV subscriptions for better Wi-Fi. Around 90 percent said yes. “I was surprised by the strength of their response,” said Novak.

Like Dagefoerde, Novak said the investments Dakota Wesleyan makes in Wi-Fi are about meeting student expectations, but also adapting to changing pedagogy. Students register their attendance in class via Wi-Fi and take online polls in class. And faculty are working with digital textbooks and communicating with colleagues via Skype. “Wi-Fi is an integral part of our institutional strategy,” said Novak.

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