Networking and Wireless | Feature

Residential Networks: Squeezing Cats Through the Pipe

As students' digital entertainment takes up more and more bandwidth on campus, colleges and universities look for cost-effective, scalable solutions.

Cats playing the piano, the latest Hollywood flick, sitcoms on Hulu--you name it. On campuses nationwide, streaming video is taking bigger and bigger bites of bandwidth, feeding students' ravenous demand for digital entertainment and leading to network congestion.

On average, a quarter of campus bandwidth is devoted to external video, more even than general academics or online gaming. The percentage climbs to half at private colleges and small public schools, according to a recent survey of 221 four-year institutions conducted by Campus Televideo, a satellite provider of telecommunications.

Changes in television viewing habits are fueling the demand. More than a third of college students watch television online, and almost half are interested in watching video online exclusively, suggests a spring survey by Student Monitor, a market research firm. Indeed, a Washington State University survey conducted a few years ago found students valued good network service above operational bathrooms.

In response, ResNet administrators across the country are turning to creative solutions to meet student connectivity needs, overcome bandwidth challenges, support multiple kinds of devices, and combat illegal file sharing.

Offering such services is necessary to attract and retain residents, according to higher ed officials, and that means matching or exceeding high-speed internet services available off-campus.

"We need to offer an equivalent experience to what you would get living at home," says Ben Price, director of residential information systems and technology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "There are plenty of other housing options in the immediate area."

Rather than put students in campus housing on a digital diet, network administrators at UCSB shifted a third of repetitive and high-bandwidth traffic to PeerApp's local cache in May 2009. The move boosted network speeds and saved money by slowing the expansion of the pipe.

"Users don't have to transit the broader internet to get each piece of content," explains Price. "It's much faster."

Streaming video accounts for half of residential traffic traveling through UCSB's internet link. To manage the load, the university also sets peak (1 p.m. to 1 a.m.) and nonpeak (1 a.m. to 1 p.m.) hours. If users exceed 1.5 GB of download during peak hours, the Procera packet-shaper automatically slows down their speed to 512k for 24 hours. Well aware of the consequences, students alter their usage accordingly. Traffic on the network spikes at 1 a.m., when students schedule downloads.

According to Price, UCSB's residential pipe will widen from 650 Mbps to 800 Mbps this fall, at a lower renegotiated cost. And bandwidth will continue to grow as the university expands its accommodations, from 7,500 to 12,000 students in the next decade.

Help Desk Pressure
While streaming video and file sharing tax network capacity at colleges, the sheer proliferation of devices--gaming consoles, iPods, tablets, smartphones, laptops, and desktop computers--is also putting greater demands on campus help desks. Fourteen percent of college students have wireless reading devices such as Kindles, and more than half own smartphones, according to Student Monitor. And these tech-dependent users expect universities and colleges to support their devices.

To help meet demand, WSU launched a pilot program in spring 2010, hiring students to serve as resident technology assistants. In collaboration with network administrators and residence staff, the team tested Cisco's network-access control systems with various devices, and wrote instructions on how to connect devices and solve problems with different antivirus products.

Residents were encouraged to contact their hall's technology assistant for immediate help with connection problems. These assistants received help desk tickets, held office hours, and passed issues they couldn't resolve to the university's central help desk.

"We felt good about the result," says Craig Howard, director of WSU's administrative services information systems. "Throughout the year, students worked hard to build better resources, materials, and educational programs,"

The program expanded to every residence hall in the 2010-11 school year, with one technology assistant assigned to every 300 students. Success can be measured by the drop-off in wait times. In 2009, during the opening week of school, the line at the IT desk stretched into the hallway, with waits ranging from an hour to 90 minutes, recalls Howard. The following year, with the resident technology assistant program in place, no more than three or four people were ever waiting in line.

Money Matters
Whether you're increasing the size of the pipe or augmenting your help desk, it still all costs money. WSU, which made wireless networking ubiquitous across residence halls and added bandwidth in "big gulps," considered charging heavy bandwidth users for higher allocations. It abandoned the idea, however, when faced with the expense of installing the necessary infrastructure. For now, the residential networking services are included in the room fee. And, for many schools, this appears to be the favored option.

The College at Brockport (part of the State University of New York) is taking a different tack. While students at UCSB suffer a slowdown in service if they hog too much of the pipe, students at SUNY Brockport can simply pony up more cash: For an additional $50 each month, students can boost their basic data package of 5 Mbps to 15 Mbps. Nevertheless, the vast majority of students stick with the basic plan, says Shannon Sauro, director of telecommunications and business processes.

Since 2006, SUNY Brockport has outsourced its ResNet services to Apogee, saving an estimated $300,000 annually in staffing and infrastructure that would have been needed to serve the 2,700 students in campus housing. Apogee set up server rooms; deployed core routing and switching equipment and wiring for high-speed internet, cable TV, and IPTV; and established wall-to-wall wireless coverage. In addition, the company provides help-desk services through its call center and technician on campus.

Illegal Downloading
Apogee also deals with copyright infringements on the network, another important aspect of managing digital entertainment. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act requires colleges and universities to quell unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials by users of their networks. Enforcement of the new requirements began last year.

Illegal file sharing of copyrighted material has fallen from its peak about four years ago--when half of students admitted to doing so--after high-profile copyright battles by the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America.

But the problem persists. In the spring semester, 35 percent of students across the country downloaded music illegally and 16 percent downloaded movies illegally, according to the Student Monitor survey.

To discourage peer-to-peer file sharing, WSU sets it as low priority on its network, slowing downloads and uploads of bandwidth-hogging, potentially copyrighted video and music. "Not all P2P is illegal, but a whole lot of it is," says Howard.

In the fall semester at SUNY Brockport, Apogee provides students with information about copyright law and the risks of infringement, and outlines legal options such as purchasing music and videos from iTunes and Amazon. Typically, copyright holders are the primary monitors of illegal file-sharing websites. When they identify a potential violation, they send a notification of copyright infringement to Apogee, which notifies the school and works with officials to enforce disciplinary measures.

At SUNY Brockport, students receive two warnings. On the third violation, internet service is suspended for three days. After four or more violations, internet service is suspended for seven days for each notification received.

Violations have fallen year over year, and from fall to spring semesters, as students learn the rules. In the 2009-10 school year, there were 145 incidents in the fall and 81 in the spring; in the 2010-11 school year, there were 116 in the fall and 57 in the spring.

"We want to educate our students about doing the right thing, in a safe environment," Sauro says. "When they get out from under the Brockport wing, the penalties are much harsher. If students know it's wrong, we don't want them to think they're getting away with it."

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