Connectivity, bandwidth and video services are among the biggest investments that student housing owners and operators make in a property. Here is what you need to know for 2015 to stay engaged and up-to-date.
By Randall Shearin
Bandwidth and connectivity are a huge concern for student housing owners. Unlike traditional multifamily, in student housing, high speed Internet is considered a standard amenity when renting a bed. And that standard has risen very high among students — as in no downtime and bandwidth and speed that should accommodate all their devices running at anytime of day or night. Internet service is among the top complaints that student housing owners and operators hear, and one that they must constantly reinvest in to keep current. Bundled with Internet today are often television — or streaming video packages — that make the service a one-stop approach. SHB reached out to a number of Internet and video providers to see where the trends are for 2015, and what the future holds for student housing properties and connectivity.
SHB: What new technologies or offerings are available to student housing operators?
Edwards: Certainly the most important technology advancements for student housing operators are in the area of wireless networks. The 802.11ac wireless standards combine the enhancements associated with advanced modulation schemes, spatial streams, and the effective use of multiple frequency bands to offer Gbit/s speeds and beyond. This allows providers to offer the mobility that student residents prefer along with the speeds they demand. Fast, reliable, and mobile Internet access across the resident campus is necessary to attract and retain residents, and the group of technology enhancements that makes up the 802.11ac standard allows us to provide this.
Scifres: 802.11ac Gigabit-capable WiFi is new in the market and provides very high speed Internet. GPON, or Gigabit Passive Optical Network, is able to deliver high Internet speeds, plus video and telephone service on the same network. RFoG, or Radio Frequency over Glass allows the delivery of cable services (TV, Broadband, voice) to the customer premise over optical cable. Dish-TV’s smartbox provides high definition video in a smaller, much more efficient package that greatly reduces the size of equipment needed to deliver television. DOCSIS 3.0 for cable system allows low-cost, reliable Internet. Content Delivery Networks (CDN) like our Tesseractiv experience bring content much closer to the end-user, improving the browsing experience.
Andreoli: In 2014, Comcast launched Xfinity On Campus, a service that lets college students watch live TV and On Demand content on their IP-enabled devices, including, laptops, tablets and smartphones while on campus. Students love it because it lets them watch TV and their favorite programming on their own terms. Colleges and universities love it because not only do the students love it, but it’s also cost-effective, easy to maintain and saves bandwidth.
Daugherty: Access points enable residents of student housing to utilize one of the most exciting areas in Internet innovation — WiFi. Wireless technology can quickly become obsolete. In fact, most AP technology has an average life of about 36 months in unmanaged service environments. Managed service environments can typically extend product life for another 24 months. This timing works out well as active infrastructures (switches, routers, and firewalls) have a life of around 60 months.
Schweizer: Hotwire Communications is deploying next generation 802.11 AC wireless systems that offer a greater than 10 times increase in speed while simultaneously supporting many times the number of devices sustained by legacy WiFi access points. While these systems are more expensive than their legacy predecessors, this investment will ensure a robust and reliable student Internet experience for many years to come.
Holtz: Outdoor Jumbotrons and HDTV video walls are also great technology options to consider. They deliver the ‘wow’ factor, enticing new residents and bringing a sense of community to the property. Virtual fire pits for properties in northern climates are another innovative and budget-friendly option to create community gathering spaces.
SHB: What are student housing owners/operators looking for in an Internet provider?
Edwards: The student housing owners/operators are looking for a technology provider with the best overall service to the residents at the best value. The provider with best overall service may not always be the one with the highest raw bandwidth. For example, sites with wireless network services must be monitored very closely to make sure that each and every wireless access point is working properly. When problems are detected they need to be corrected quickly to prevent degradation of the overall wireless network. Just a few bad access points can degrade the overall network performance as resident computers attach to more distant access points, degrading network performance across the board. Certainly high overall bandwidth into the property is also very important, but it also needs to be carefully monitored and managed. This includes frequent checks on the usage, as well as the speeds that individual residents are getting. Without frequent checks on actual resident performance, all of the bandwidth in the world into the property may be useless.
Sanders: Quite simply, reliability and responsiveness. Owners want Internet that works all the time. Sounds easy, but some providers just can’t get it right. All the bells and whistles in the world don’t matter as much as this, ‘the data connection just needs to work day in and day out.’ Secondly, they want a service provider who understands what owners want and how they want to communicate. A provider who can move quickly when you need them to move quickly. Open, honest communication is the key. Problems will always happen — that’s the nature of technology. But how the provider reacts is what makes a provider like Elauwit stand out.
Schweizer: As competition grows to deliver an amenity-rich student living experience, surveys repeatedly show Internet service and technology offerings are at the top of the list. Whether marketing new lease opportunities or increasing lease renewal rates, owners and management companies depend on the reliability and speed of their community’s Internet offering. With the ability to deliver a strong Internet service, owners can leverage a strong marketing message and gain a healthy competitive advantage. The community is far less likely to fall victim to undesirable social media press that tends to be the dominant forum used by students in their selection criteria. An additional benefit to partnering with a strong Internet technology company is that the resident living experience is enhanced and operational efficiencies are realized when robust wireless data networks support amenities like digital signage, keyless entry systems, automated laundry and vending machine offerings.
Marshall: What owners and operators are looking for now doesn’t really relate to bandwidth; it relates to ‘I don’t want theInternet to be a problem.’ The primary driver for owners and operators is to provide a good amenity that makes them competitive with everyone else, but that does not cause them problems that can affect their NOI directly. There aren’t many owners who get into the trenches on bandwidth and technology. They look to us to do that, generally. Our primary job is to make sure your Internet works. Owners and operators are also concerned with the overall user experience. That usually is decided by the latency in the connection — how fast a response comes back — and the accessibility of the Internet, particularly with WiFi. With students having so many devices connected, the WiFi design of most buildings cannot sustain the number of devices. There are now problems with interference with devices.
Holtz: Student housing operators are looking for an Internet provider that will take ownership of their products and services while delivering high-quality customer service to their residents. Unhappy customers may potentially leave the property, causing challenges for the property owner. Owners expect the provider to be proactive in recommending both bandwidth increases and video line-up changes in addition to keeping the services offered operational all the time.
Paver: Modern owner/operators understand that providing a fast, reliable Internet service for their residents is one of the most paramount amenities that any profitable student housing community needs to invest in. These owners/operations are looking for a trusted partner who can provide a progressive wireless solution that will meet long-term investment allocations and boost resident satisfaction rates. At the end of the day, owners don’t want residents complaining to the apartment staff about network issues. Choosing a partner that provides a reliable service but also provides 24/7 network monitoring and on-the-ground support is crucial to the success of a student housing community.
Pye: Basically, to work it needs to have a high quality of support and service. When a community includes high-speed Internet access in the rent, it is supposed to be an amenity — not a source of resident dissatisfaction. The vendor needs to support the residents in such a way that the clubhouse does not have to be involved in everyday support. They need to be proactive and sensitive to the residents’ concerns. The quality of the actual service is determined by the quality of the network management. Network management is the combination of the equipment onsite and the vendor’s ability to manage it. There are a half dozen vendors nationally that are exceptional at this. Given the same site bandwidth and equipment, they are able to deliver high-speed Internet access many orders of magnitude better than the rest.
SHB: What are students looking for in an Internet provider?
Sanders: The same things as an owner/operator: reliability and responsiveness. They need enough bandwidth to take frustration out of the Internet experience. Internet that always works. And, if it stops working, a frictionless support process that gets it working quickly again.
Schweizer: When attending college, students do not necessarily hold allegiance to large, big brand Internet service providers as much as they value ease of use and reliability. They are used to, and comfortable with, the Internet service in their single family home, which has a seamless wireless connection and a minimal number of users sharing the bandwidth. They tend to be indifferent to the technical challenges involved in providing reliable Internet to a multifamily community with large numbers of power users utilizing the same Internet connection at peak usage times. Internet connectivity is their primary method of communication whether for educational purposes, entertainment, or social interaction…it’s their oxygen. Any disruption, even for a small amount of time, can lead to a flood of calls to the management staff. There is a common misconception in the student housing industry that speed of the Internet connection is directly proportional to its quality. Although marketing fast speeds at a community can be instrumental in gaining a competitive edge, students want reliability as well as speed. If you give students seamless Internet connectivity, including low latency, management complaints are reduced and negative social media is kept to a minimum.
Edwards: In 2015, quite simply, residents expect mobility and speed from their Internet provider. At properties where we deliver wireless services, it is rare to find any device, other than potentially a gaming console or Blu-ray player, connected to a wall jack — and many of those are connected wirelessly as well. Mobility is the standard for today’s student residents, and ensuring a stable wide-band connection for a broad range of devices in a densely packed environment has become the technology challenge for housing operators. Working with a provider that understands the dynamics of wireless delivery and how to successfully manage both coverage and capacity issues has become paramount in offering quality Internet services. Second, and never to be underestimated, is the residents’ demand for speed. We know that residents will, for all intents and purposes, use whatever bandwidth is available to them. Working with a provider that can continue to deliver a quality experience to residents without emptying the owners’ pockets is really the key.
Holtz: Students are looking for instant and constant connectivity at an affordable price. This includes support during peakusage hours (10 p.m. – 2 a.m.) and the ability to have support questions answered via text, video chat, and other technological mediums. Students also expect their services to work seamlessly, with no latency and no buffering. Otherwise, they will look for another provider or another home.
Marshall: The biggest issues, with WiFi in particular, are almost always due to interference of the signal. The wireless access points will often interfere with a managed network. There are also interfering devices that are legitimate to use, but you have to configure them correctly. The most common over the past few years have been wireless printers. Interference education is a big deal. All a student cares about is that they can do what they want to do, when they want to do it, without any friction between them and getting it done. That could be looking at Facebook on their phone or downloading a book on a Kindle. The Internet to students is like a water tap; when they want it, the water should be there.
Paver: Speed, mobility and reliability. There is a growing demand for a faster, more robust Internet connection within student housing communities. Long from the days of just surfing the web, students rely on a fast, wireless Internet connection to engage in educational, social, health and entertainment activities across multiple, varied Internet-enabled devices and applications. In fact, the average student today owns at least seven Internet-enabled devices and spends 125.4 hours per week on some type of digital device. Additionally, television consumption has increasingly moved off cable and onto the Internet using emerging technologies, such as 4K video and IPTV. TV streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon TV have gained such popularity with younger demographics within recent years that original series are being developed across these networks, increasing the demand for a rapid Internet for on-demand streaming.
SHB: What the most creative solution you’ve developed for a student housing client in the past year? How did it resolve a significant problem?
Sanders: We believe the ‘creativity’ owners/operators want most is not something new and flashy. Rather, it is the creative skill and ability to operate our company in a way that effectively and efficiently delivers the products we sell — Internet connectivity and video entertainment. A prime example that illustrates this (and not just for one client, but for five): Elauwit’s takeover and conversion of more than 5,000 beds of Internet service at seven properties for five owners during the recent Christmas holiday. Four of the seven had an immediate need, requiring creative thinking and overnight reaction. When Internet at the sites was turned off the mid-week of exams by the service provider who was being replaced, Elauwit took action with only an hour of notice, restoring service faster than anyone thought possible.
Andreoli: Xfinity On Campus, the service we launched in 2014 that lets college students watch live TV on devices while on campus, is a solution we’re especially proud of. Not only does it meet the evolving needs of today’s students who are looking for more flexibility in watching their favorite programming on their own terms, but it gives colleges and universities a best-in-class and cost-effective entertainment solution to offer its on-campus students.
Daugherty: Bandwidth allocation has always been a problem. With users connecting a higher number of devices each year, this trend will probably continue. In the last year, we’ve implemented a patent pending system architecture that allows residents to use all the available bandwidth at a site with their maximum speed dependent upon the number of users on the network at a given time.
Marshall: We worked with a property manager to develop best practices and education for their residents using the wireless network. We compiled a list of best practices, which we give to the properties where we install WiFi. There has to be a lot of participation from our side, but also from the residents and property operations people.
Schweizer: In Tallahassee, Florida, Hotwire worked with North American Properties (NAP) to deliver an end-to-end fiber network with wall-to-wall wireless connectivity throughout a disconnected three-building complex. With efforts to become the elite in student living in Tallahassee, NAP tasked Hotwire with finding ways to ensure that when new bandwidth-hungry applications came to market, or when competition warranted an upgrade, they could respond on the turn of a dime. Just as important, NAP wanted seamless wireless connectivity in its many common areas including pools, volleyball courts, courtyards, computer labs, fitness centers and lobbies. Hotwire was able to achieve both by installing a fiber-to-the-premise and fiber-to-the-unit solution which allows bandwidth upgrades to happen within 24 hours. We also installed robust and weather resistant 802.11 AC wireless systems throughout their common areas to ensure students did not lose wireless connection when they left their apartment. This allowed them to easily study with a neighbor or enjoy wireless service at the pool without losing or changing their wireless connection settings.
Edwards: Airwave Networks was the first student housing technology provider to develop two state-of-the-art mobile applications which provide for enhanced communications capabilities among the property, its residents and Airwave Networks. On one hand the Airwave Networks Resident APP, allows residents to quickly and easily obtain information about the services provided at a particular property, test Internet connections, view channel guides, and when necessary, contact Airwave Networks customer care. Even further, it provides the property with a comprehensive set of tools to quickly deliver up-to-the-minute information and communicate directly with residents a messaging product. In an effort to provide an excellent customer experience for our property and corporate management customers, the Airwave Networks Ai APP allows management personnel to easily communicate with residents, access network status information, view usage statistics and trouble ticket reports, request property upgrades and contact Airwave service personnel. Both of these mobile applications are examples of how Airwave Networks is continuing to provide our property ownership and management partners with the ability to create truly connected communities at their locations.
Pye: We have done some fairly impressive high speed Internet access solutions and they will only get bigger and better this August. However, we are most proud of crafting the most cost effective solution for each community. Every community is extremely unique. The factors that can dramatically affect service quality and cost are endless — rent, construction type, size, ratio of beds to units, location, etc. We are proudest of working for the best solution for each community. It is possible to have the same solution/service/vendor on a group of communities, you have to be willing to pay more for it.
Holtz: We design and manage the deployment of Distributed Antenna Systems for boosting cellular smartphone service, full coverage WiFi that supports ultra-fast broadband speeds and multiple users simultaneously (think about multi-user gaming consoles), Internet-Connected Fitness Equipment, and even the “Internet of Things,” or home automation. Creativity is the successful implementation of a technology that benefits the students and creates little if any increased work for the property staff.
Paver: Recently, we were approached by a property that was underserved by their local cable company. After learning about some of the problems the property had experienced with their previous Internet service provider and their expectations, we utilized our expertise in construction services and emergency takeovers to rapidly deploy a technology-driven solution, complete with 802.11ac wireless coverage. Within a few weeks, this property was fully upgraded with the most progressive gigabit technology and ultra-speed, wireless Internet all within a predictable budget and just-in-time for move-in. While we understand that every new development has its own construction challenges, we understand that not meeting move-in timelines, budgets and long-term objectives is not an option. As a leading ISP for the student housing community, we work with student housing owners/operators to provide cost-effective solutions tailored to specific property needs, while leveraging owner value and prospective growth.
SHB: What is coming down the road in new technology that will affect bandwidth or connectivity? How should student housing operators confront this challenge now?
Sanders: The changes coming are those that increase the need for bandwidth — more video and television content viewed over the Internet. Dish, DirecTV and the MSOs are developing and launching over-the-top video capabilities that intend to meet the needs residents are demanding, which in turn will modify what owners and operators want from their service provider. Operators can best prepare by building or upgrading to a robust data infrastructure that includes AC standard access points, more WAP drops for use tomorrow rather than today, the latest DAS or femtocell (low-power cellular base station) systems for cellular connectivity.
Scifres: 4K and 8K television will have an impact. Communities will need more bandwidth to meet performance demands.
Daugherty: Another exciting element of managed Internet services is the ability to manage, control, and manipulate rapidly changing bandwidth usage. For example, recent data indicates average bandwidth requirements for student housing are growing by 15 percent to 20 percent each semester. The largest contributing element of this growth is constant bit-rate traffic from sources like Bit Torrent and video streaming sites such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. For example, the highest quality video Netflix currently offers is Super HD, which requires a connection between 6 to 12 Mbps. Ultra HD will consume around 15 megabits per second and 4K could consume as much as 50 Mbps. For this reason alone, managing and controlling bandwidth usage will allow us to stay one step ahead of residents in how much bandwidth they are needing.
Schweizer: Although somewhat disconnected from the true spirit of academia, students will continue to enjoy their downtime gaming. Newer and better gaming systems are coming down the road and will continue to challenge owners and service providers. Poor speed and/or Internet connectivity issues will certainly affect the gaming experience which is a sure-fire way to light up your office phones with complaints. In December 2014’s PC Magazine article “The Best Gaming ISPs for 2015,” Hotwire was rated 7th best in service providers nationwide. Gaming is a strong measure of an ISP’s ability to not only install and maintain state-of-the-art networking and WiFi infrastructure but also its ability to provision ample bandwidth to a student housing community. With the technological advances of over-the-top (OTT) programming content through Netflix, Hulu, HBO and many other video streaming companies, service providers like Hotwire need to make steady and diligent investment in their fiber optic network. They must also continue to provision for plenty of bandwidth now to support the growing demand for OTT. The opportunity to access this streaming content continues to rise via a myriad of devices like iPads, gaming console systems and smart phones. As technologies advance in the manufacturing of more bandwidth hungry devices, service providers will have to work with owners to ensure capital investments are made to either improve legacy wifi systems or build new wifi systems capable of sustaining such an onslaught of new devices.
Edwards: The fastest changing and most dynamic technology affecting bandwidth continues to be in the area of wireless. Ongoing advancements in spatial processing, geolocation, improved protocols for roaming, near field communications, and new spectrum at 60 GHz hint at an explosion of applications and speeds. These higher bandwidths will allow residents to send multiple ultra-high definition video between devices without wires. The new geolocation capabilities will allow for enhanced emergency location services as well as other enhanced location services, such as unlocking apartment doors with your phone, easily finding misplaced devices, and even adjusting apartment environments upon entry.
Pye: The greatest challenge today is the ever-growing cost of WiFi. Today a WiFi deployment may be good for four years. Then the community has to find a way to pay for a comprehensive upgrade of the onsite equipment. It was problematic when users’ speeds were 1/1 Mbps, residents averaged 1.5 wireless devices and the ratio of users to wireless access points was 25:1. It is more challenging when we market speeds of 100 Mbps to 1 Gb, we average 5 wireless devices per residents and the ratio of users to access points is 4.5:1. Put simply, we used to face a $50,000 expense every four to five years. Owners and managers currently face an expence upwards of $150,000 every four years.
Holtz: 4K TV technology is making its way to the residential market at more affordable prices. 4K technologies streaming video from Netflix and other over the top providers takes significantly more bandwidth. Unbundling HBO and other premium channels from cable and satellite services will drive higher bandwidth requirements. The new Microsoft Holographic (HoloLens) in Windows 10 will also drive bandwidth usage exponentially in the future. Wearable devices requiring Internet connectivity will further compound the need for very robust WiFi networks.
Marshall: In technology, there are two things that will have a big effect starting in 2015 and going forward. First, 4K TVs, which is the next generation of high definition television. Now, a high-def movie streamed on a device uses between 2 and 4 Mbps; with 4K TV that goes to nearly twice the speed. As people integrate these 4K streaming sources into properties the bandwidth use will go up. Most infrastructures will not be able to cope with that, especially the wireless infrastructure. Second, 802.11 AC wireless is starting. We just deployed that technology. The non-technological thing that is happening that will affect properties is the unbundling of cable programming. HBO launched this by allowing people to subscribe directly to streaming HBO without having a cable package. We think that will be the start of an avalanche of different channels unbundling, especially premium networks. There are massive implications for student housing with that. For one, they may have very long term cable contracts in place. Secondly, the Internet bandwidth you need to have to sustain that number of concurrent streams is going to increase. Your existing network infrastructure may not be good enough.
Paver: The Internet of Things (wifi-enabled devices not including laptops, smartphones or tablets) is one of the fastestgrowing technology trends in recent years. Studies from Gartner, Inc. anticipate that IOT technology will multiple to 26 billion units by the year 2020, a 2,788 percent growth from the 0.9 total units calculated in 2009. With students being one of the largest groups of early adopters for technology-enabled products, student housing operators are under more pressure than ever to ensure that their wireless networks can meet the radical growth of their property’s internet data usage, speed and support demands for their students within the next five years. At CampusConnect, we believe having a well-planned, flexible network is fundamental for meeting the drastic growth of WiFi-enabled devices, while meeting resident satisfaction and portfolio success.