Student housing operators and telecommunications suppliers grapple with the massive amounts of bandwidth students require.
By Scott Reid
Ask any student housing operator what is the most important amenity to students, and they’ll tell you it’s a fast and reliable Internet connection. Not only is the Internet essential to a successful college career today — with online homework modules, readings, streaming lectures and study sessions a constant — but most college students rely on entertainment options found online via bandwidth-intensive social media and streaming video.
Though the numbers vary, it’s been found that the average college student has three to seven devices that connect to the Internet, and more are being developed now that will be gaining popularity in the coming years. This accounts for an enormous amount of bandwidth that the wireless access points and cable infrastructure present in many student housing facilities just can’t accommodate.
Whether a student housing property on- or off-campus offers wired Internet or Wi-Fi, maintaining a constant, fast connection is a requirement for keeping residents happy and successful.
FIBER IS COMING
Many student housing operators are partnering with telecommunications suppliers to switch from cable infrastructure to fiber infrastructure to offer students Gigabit speeds, or 1,000 Mbps, often at great capital expense.
According to Henry Pye, vice president of resident technology for Carrollton, Texas-based RealPage, the design and methodology of high-speed Internet access has not changed significantly in the past few years. Ethernet (hard-wired) access has changed from megabit to gigabit speeds, wireless networks have progressed to newest-and-greatest 801.11 G, N and AC networks, fiber distribution transitioned from multimode to single mode, and developments have installed Category 6 cables instead of Category 5e for faster speeds over a shorter distance.
What has changed significantly, Pye says, is bandwidth, the number of devices per resident, the way residents utilize Internet access and the lifespan of the related equipment. Specifically, he says, communities now average 50 to 200 Mbps per bed, with a few as high as 1 Gbps; residents now have an average of more than seven devices, with an average of 5.5 wireless devices; streaming video and gaming are the most prevalent applications; and wireless equipment needs to be upgraded every three to four years.
Making connectivity as routine as putting gasoline in your car is important to Gainesville, Florida-based The Collier Cos. Aaron Harden, vice president of systems and technology for The Collier Cos., says, “We are shifting our focus toward dedicated fiber and campus-wide wireless solutions, especially on new construction. Today’s consumer expects the Internet to work on the first try. We want to remove the layers of having to plug in or set up a modem and router on move-in day.
“Using more sophisticated access points, we’ve also been able to implement ‘by-the-device’ managed bandwidth as opposed to ‘by-the-unit.’ The days of sharing bandwidth with your roommates may be quickly coming to an end. Now it’s possible for residents to have dedicated bandwidth on their phones, tablets and computers.”
According to Bruce Sanders, executive vice president of Elauwit Networks, a connectivity provider for the industry, the company will deliver bandwidth via point-to-point microwave when circumstances merit.
Richard Holtz, CEO of InfiniSys Electronic Architects, says one of the more common technologies to provide students with high-speed Internet and video service in a dense multi-unit building is a fiber-based active Ethernet. “This type of deployment involves running fiber to communications rooms — rooms where all of the telecom cables originate in each building ¬¬— located throughout the property where electronics are placed,” he says. “The data signal is then converted and redistributed to the units over cat 5 or cat 6 cable for high-speed Internet. The video signal is converted and redistributed to the units using RG6 (coaxial) cable. There are distance limitations associated with RG6 cable that must be considered when locating comm rooms.
“For cottage-style properties, passive optical network (PON) is the preferred architecture,” says Holtz. “In a PON-style architecture, fiber is run to a main distribution point, then distributed to each unit after being optically split where the signal is converted using an optical network terminal for Internet and video service. There are no electronics required between the main distribution hub and the unit, eliminating the need for comm rooms.”
KEEPING UP THE CONNECTION
Technology and its abilities improve daily, and connectivity in multi-unit housing is no different. Outfitting large communities or buildings with the newest and shiniest is a very costly endeavor, especially when it relates to the bones of the technology, or infrastructure. Deciding what to spend and when is a constant concern for operators and can be used as a negotiating tool for operation contracts.
According to Pye, communities need to consider for upgrade bandwidth every two years, wireless equipment every three to four years and wired equipment every four to five years.
“The management of these items is constantly evolving,” he says. “Most vendors consistently push through setting and software modifications to onsite equipment. However, as a result of capital budgets and sale of communities, it is common for all of the capital upgrades to occur every three years or at a disposition, when expense can be capitalized.
Pye says that RealPage often works with owners to upgrade a community’s entire Internet (and often video) system when they acquire the community while already budgeting for the next Wi-Fi upgrade cost four years later.
“This year we will upgrade nearly 100 communities,” he says. “Almost all of these communities will get new wireless access points, gigabit switches and significant bandwidth increases. Capitalizing the upgrades is critical, especially when acquiring an asset. It is almost always less expensive to cover capital costs than to amortize in the monthly expense. In most cases, a one-time capital cost is less than half the price of amortizing the upgrades.
“Many older communities simply cannot afford $100,000 or more for a wireless upgrade every three to four years,” he says. “As a result, some older communities are removing older wireless equipment and providing only wired high-speed Internet access.”
In Georgia, Elauwit upgraded outdated infrastructure at a property without wireless service. More than 1,200 beds were converted with gigabit-to-the-unit equipment, 802.11ac access points and 40 Mbps per resident speeds. In Colorado, near the University of Denver, Elauwit removed and replaced an analog video headend at a student housing property in order to deliver high-definition television programming, added in-unit Wi-Fi throughout the high-rise facility, and took an extremely slow Internet network with 100 Mbps circuit to a blazing-fast 1 Gbps circuit supported by the appropriate switches for maximum throughput, resulting in 100 Mbps per bed speeds for residents.
According to Katerina Shineleva of Campus Technologies, “Use of carrier-class wired network equipment and forward planning gives wireline infrastructure an approximately 10-year service life. Use of a platform-based wireless network provides similar lifespan for management servers.”
“The only potentially obsolescent devices are wireless access points, which require a swap out when technologies change,” she says. “There’s nothing you can do about that, unfortunately, other than deploy the latest available standard.”
Airwave Networks, an Annapolis, Maryland-based networking company, is also making modifications to Internet infrastructure. According to John Baloga, vice president of strategic planning and CIO, over the past two years, more than 85 percent of Airwave-served properties have undergone some type of upgrade, whether they be basic bandwidth increases, or fiber, wiring or electronic equipment replacement.
Student housing management company Homestead America has partnered with networking company Pavlov Media to offer its properties lightning-fast fiber connectivity. “Think of it as being able to download a high-definition movie in 30 seconds, versus it taking 40 minutes with traditional Internet,” says Dave Anderson, president of Homestead.
Anderson says that Homestead recently completed a $170,000 upgrade at its property in Lubbock, Texas, called The Ranch. “Since acquiring this property, we have taken bandwidth from 70 mbps to 500 mbps, and the result has been much higher resident satisfaction and a 3 percent increase in retention.”
Rather than constantly pumping capital into upgrades whenever a newer and better system hits the market, these networking companies and student housing operators take a measured approach to updating systems.
According to Dave Daugherty, founder and CEO of Korcett, “Because Korcett systems are cloud-based, we can use much less expensive equipment, such as managed switches. This tends to extend the quality of equipment life: we have been able to increase equipment life by deploying upgrades and updates through the cloud rather than by constantly deploying updates physically, which adds additional stress to the equipment.”
Sanders points out the importance of keeping the equipment in the best possible condition during its useful life, achieved through proper electrical grounding, sufficient HVAC for a controlled environment and cleanliness of the equipment rooms and closets. In addition, he says, “Preventative maintenance through remote monitoring and regular inspection provides protection of the investment.”
James Whitley, vice president and COO of Landmark Properties, says, “While there is no absolute way to ‘future-proof’ our developments, we add enough conduit during construction to make additional or different wiring an easier pill to swallow, should a future need arise. We also own our own infrastructure within the building to ensure we are never held hostage by a provider.”
Baloga says that Airwave works with each owner and manager to develop a capital plan that is aimed at anticipating and properly budgeting for upgrades that may be on the horizon. “This prevents our property partners from exorbitant capital spending at the time of development or takeover,” he says, “and allows for timely, and economically sensible, investment throughout the lifetime of the owner’s interest in the community.”
DENIAL OF SERVICE
Despite nearly 20 years of popular Internet usage, outages do still occur as the result of inclement weather, network overloading and other unforeseen factors. Whatever the cause, student housing operators and networking providers must be ready to assess and correct these situations. The satisfaction of residents depends on it.
“If you have all the bells and whistles but your residents can’t watch their favorite shows on Netflix or view their online lecture for class, then nothing else you’ve promised matters,” says Harden of The Colliers Cos.
According to Pavlov Media CEO Mark Scifres, Pavlov uses redundancy on its backbone network and redundant links between its systems. “We leverage our national backbone to provide a web of high-speed Internet links crisscrossing the entire nation. We pay close attention to environmental stability, power and grounding, because poor power delivery and cabling cause many outages.” Scifres adds: “Fiber-to-the-user units improve reliability as they are resistant to factors that plague traditional Ethernet, telecom and cable technologies.”
Dave Schweizer, vice president of student housing technologies for Hotwire Communications, says, “Our network operations center (NOC) and customer service centers are manned around the clock from multiple geographic locations and actively monitor all of our sites to prevent disruptions and outages. Should an outage occur, the NOC is notified in real-time and Tier 2 teams begin remote troubleshooting. At this point, field technicians are deployed immediately to the affected site and our account managers begin escalating communication with property management.”
Having spare equipment can mitigate many disruptions, as can using a vendor with local support to help you respond faster, says Pye, not to mention communicating clearly with a landscaper as to the location of the underground fiber.
For many providers, taking a proactive approach to potential outages is best. “Proper monitoring can provide an indication of equipment failure, improperly provisioned resources, or new and unidentified network risks,” says Baloga. “As a part of the monitoring process, Airwave collects statistics from network elements throughout the property’s deployed system. Some of the most critical of these statistics will create an automatic alarm when outside of normal parameters.”
Baloga says a crucial element to resolving an Internet outage is keeping your residents and property personnel apprised of the issue and the steps being taken to rectify it. “Imagine coming home to your apartment after a long day filled with organic chemistry labs, calculus tests, engineering study groups, and a part-time job, only to find that you can’t complete online coursework because there is an Internet issue at your property,” he says. “Now imagine your Internet service provider was innovative enough to send a push notification to your smartphone informing you of the issue so that you can choose to stay on campus until you receive a follow-up message that service is restored.
Another critical element of ensuring high quality Internet access in the student housing market, Baloga says, is the effective and timely detection and management of viruses and other malicious traffic. “When effective anti-virus techniques are not employed, a single virus has the ability to deny service to a multitude of users, sometimes affecting an entire facility.”
As technology, social media and infrastructure progresses, communities will be on the hook to provide faster, more robust wireless service to their residents. New devices that monopolize bandwidth are being introduced every day and developers and operators must be prepared to accommodate what residents need.
“Students will continue to be early adopters of new technologies and devices,” Schweizer says. “Students and universities are already incorporating blogging, YouTube, Twitter and other social media plat-forms into the classroom. This will only increase the current demand for reliable, mobile and fast Internet connections as students and faculty desire to be constantly connected. Plus, they continue to consume more over-the-top content with nearly 71 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds currently streaming TV programming, according to a recent Statista Report. This will put a fur-ther strain on networks and will require an even more robust fiber optic network.”
According to Brian Reid of The Preiss Co., a survey of 100 of its properties’ residents found that 58 percent preferred Internet-related video content to traditional cable TV service. “Devices such as the Xbox One, Playstation 4, Roku, Apple TV, smartphones and tablets are increasingly popular options for video content consumption,” he says.
Sanders says emerging technologies that soon must be accounted for when building communities include mobile and wearable devices (such as smartwatches and activity trackers), wireless calling via smartphone, streaming and over-the-top video (content providers/aggregators searching for the right TV-over-Internet solution), the proliferation of video chat and more.
“Improving latency and not just recommending increased bandwidth will be an important hurdle for Internet providers to jump,” Whitley points out. “This will also be the case as more classes become available online and video conferencing capabilities becomes a required tool for college students.”
Chip Edwards, vice president of research and development for Airwave, says the “Internet of Things” cannot be discounted, the interconnection of electronic devices and controllers to manage our homes, appliances and electronic systems. This can include heating and cooling systems, surveillance and security systems, and other integrated systems. “As properties move toward employing these items at sites, the systems can consume vast amounts of Internet address space and can load down the servers that provide address assignment,” he says.
Predicting how and when new devices and new technologies will be introduced, and how to protect them, is a guessing game, but Anderson points out that robust, reliable Internet is fast becoming a basic necessity: “The idea of peak usage hours relative to user speeds is outdated,” he says. “Providers need fast and efficient connectivity at all hours because our user is connected at all hours.”