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More Bandwidth Per User: Keeping Up With Student Demand

Houston Community College, already among the fastest schools in Internet speed, still must work to keep up with ever-increasing student expectations.

More Bandwidth Per User: Keeping Up With Student Demand

By the year 2019, mobile traffic is expected to grow tenfold, according to a Cisco report released earlier this year. The same report indicates that global mobile data traffic grew 69 percent in 2014 – reaching about 30 times the size of the entire global Internet in 2000. By 2019, there will be nearly 1.5 mobile devices per capita (a total of 11.5 billion), exceeding the world's projected population (7.6 billion) at that time.

At colleges and universities across the country, IT executives are responding to this mobile explosion by taking a close look at their wireless networks. Institutions must not only accommodate the upsurge in mobile devices, but also at provide significantly more bandwidth for each user, to allow for the increased use of video and big data applications.

Houston Community College, with 75,000 students and 26 campuses in the greater Houston metropolitan area, ranks in the top 20 of college and universities in the nation with the fastest Internet speed. "The ranking has a lot to do with the Southeast Texas GigaPOP (SETG)," said Kyle Cooper, senior network architect, system support and information technology. "HCC, the University of Houston, Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine and other institutions comprise this high-speed network, which is in the process of upgrading its backbone to 100G."

The SETG network allows for robust connectivity between institutions and the Lonestar Education and Research Network, Internet2 and many common Web sites and services such as Amazon, Google and Netflix. As an SETG member, Cooper noted, HCC has additional network paths to such Internet resources, offloading traffic from higher-cost Internet service provider links. "The aggregation of these connections is a significant contributor to our ability to provide fast Internet speeds to our students."

Like many community colleges, HCC has a very transient student population "We don't have a resident population, but we have a large number of public users coming on and off of our network at any given time," said Cooper. When on campus, students demand a high-speed network connection that is an extension of what they have at home. "We have to make sure we provide them with robust access and consistent access, while still protecting HCC's internal network resources."

Wireless Exceeds Wired Network Traffic at HCC

To illustrate the impact of mobile devices on the educational environment at HCC, Cooper added that, as of the spring semester, wireless traffic surpassed the wired network in bandwidth consumption for the first time. "This is a reflection of the continual migration of applications and users to mobile devices and wireless connectivity," he explained. "There's less focus on fixed computer LANs and more focus on collaborative wireless classroom learning environments."

HCC is predominately a BYOD environment, and most of the devices are smartphones and tablets. "The number of mobile devices coming onto the HCC wireless networks increases by as much as 25 percent each semester," noted Cooper, "so client density and throughput are a constant challenge." The proliferation of mobile devices is one of the most significant drivers of Internet bandwidth utilization at HCC, with more than 65 percent of all wireless traffic video-based. "This puts a heavy load on each wireless access point, coupled with the fact that most wireless environments at the college have a high physical density of users — from common areas to libraries and the classroom."

To keep up with the demand, the HCC IT team is in the process of a comprehensive district-wide network core and wireless AP upgrade that includes both existing and new buildings. "Our students and faculty expect consistent and fast network access. We work hard to make sure the network is an enabler and not a barrier."

Managing Mobile Demand With 802.11ac

"We have 25 billion 'things' connected to the Internet today, noted Renee Patton, director of education for Cisco's US Public Sector. "That figure will be up to 50 billion by the year 2020."

To manage that mobile explosion, HCC is rolling out 802.11ac WiFi equipment from Cisco. "802.11ac is coming out in two different waves," said Cooper. "We're currently upgrading all of our legacy APs to Wave 1 APs." The next step: Wave 2, which has the potential to bring a lot of value and capacity to HCC's wireless environment, especially in terms of user density and bandwidth to each user. As Cooper explained, "Wave 2's introduction of Multi-User MIMO [Multiple-Input Multiple-Output] promises to be a game changer for WiFi, transitioning the AP from a hub to a switch, so to speak." He added that this will have a direct impact on high-density environments such as a classroom full of students with multiple devices, all vying for the same bandwidth. With Wave 2, each AP will be able to support more users and higher data rates — helping keep up with demand while reducing both capital and operational expense.

"Wave 2 is bandwidth and capacity without rip and replace," added Patton. "Its increased network throughput will provide more bandwidth to each user, while Cisco's NBASE-T Alliance, of which Cisco is a founding member, allows for an increase in network speeds on existing cables."

In addition, Wave 2's increased network throughput "to Gigabit and beyond" will enable increased use of video collaboration and big data applications on mobile devices within the classroom, said Patton, adding, "I see Wave 2 providing additional opportunity to reduce the number of traditional wired ports that exist within our campus environment, many of which are underutilized or not used at all."

Best Practices

Cooper has several recommendations for other colleges and universities facing the challenge of boosting bandwidth to keep up with student demand:

  • Make sure that you are upgrading Internet bandwidth capacity just as you upgrade and add more access points. The increase of clients and data throughput within the AP in turn will require more network bandwidth. It's also a good idea to complete a post-upgrade RF site survey to make sure APs are in the proper location, and to identify any coverage holes.
  • In new building deployments and renovations, make sure to install Cat6A cabling in access point locations. Future Wave2 APs will require 10 Gigabit uplinks and greater power over Ethernet requirements. Also, network switch upgrades will likely be necessary to support these new APs.
  • Leverage collaborative research and commodity Internet peering networks as much as possible to help offload user traffic and increase bandwidth.
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