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10 Do's and Don'ts of Outsourcing the ResNet

Students living on campus demand ever-increasing levels of network bandwidth, coverage, and services. When tackling a residential networking overhaul, consider these best practices.

Today's sophisticated student expects variety, speed, and ease of use at every campus touchpoint--and residential networks are no exception.

In 2010, student residents at the University of Texas at Arlington vocalized their need for a reliable, fast network that could deliver the high service levels needed for their mobile devices and streaming media. Our housing team responded by upgrading an obsolete network infrastructure to meet demand for increased bandwidth, extensive coverage, and bundled services.

After careful consideration of how we could support residents more efficiently while still providing for the daily management of the student ResNet, we decided to outsource the ResNet to Apogee, an Austin-based provider. Effective August 2010, we utilized this additional network support to expand our wireless infrastructure, providing full coverage to six existing residence halls and four apartment communities. With a new residence hall and apartments opening this month, Apogee is now providing ResNet services to more than 3,000 campus residents.

The following do's and don'ts are a collection of the tips, tricks, and best practices that we learned as we overhauled the network:

The Do's of Residential Networking

1) Do Communicate With Your Network Provider
Outsourcing the ResNet and support services allowed us to take advantage of the provider's expertise to meet the increasingly complex needs of our student communities. But that doesn't mean we're hands-off.

Once the network infrastructure was up and running, ongoing communication and vendor management became a priority. For example, our communications expert (who helped to fine-tune the RFP) continues to monitor service levels by reviewing biweekly field reports of student help tickets--and if patterns indicate concerns, that person follows up with the vendor. The result: ongoing student satisfaction with network service and support, and a provider that meets or exceeds contractual obligations.

2) Do Plan With the Future in Mind
Within UT Arlington's housing office, we joke about figuring out what students want and then doubling that for implementation--but there's a kernel of truth in there. Student bandwidth consumption continues to increase at ever-faster rates, so we advise administrators to always plan for both current and future demand as the device usage proliferates.

For that reason, data service contracts should include a provision for ongoing speed upgrades. In our case, the provider monitors network activity and increases bandwidth as needed on an annual basis, without additional cost to the university.

Administrators may also want to evaluate the operating budget impact of executing significant infrastructure upgrades in one year vs. amortizing upgrades over several years. By outsourcing the ResNet, we were able to refresh the infrastructure in 2010 at a cost that was spread throughout the five-year contract term.

3) Do Manage Your Risk
Both legal and illegal online media consumption has risen dramatically among college students. It's now more important than ever to keep the network up-to-date with all regulatory and legal requirements, including the appropriate response to on-campus DMCA violations and compliance with federal guidelines for cooperation with law enforcement (CALEA). When ResNet vendors replace the school as the ISP for student residents, they assume complete responsibility for meeting federal standards. By outsourcing UT Arlington's ResNet, we were able to manage shifting regulatory rules and establish a protocol to immediately shut down access and notify the student conduct office when copyright infringement by a resident occurs.

4) Do Ensure Security and Privacy Concerns are Monitored and Addressed
At UT Arlington, each resident receives a designated login in order to authenticate their access to the network. Copyright violators are also recognized by IP address, enabling us to minimize DMCA violations through enforcement and deterrence. In the event of a federal request for information related to an investigation, the provider understands how to work directly with the FCC and law enforcement agencies to deliver an efficient compliance solution that also preserves the privacy of students, faculty, and staff.

5) Do Ensure that WIFI is Robust, Scalable, and Reliable
At UT Arlington, we found that the legacy infrastructure was ill-equipped to handle the active, often chaotic environment of the student residence hall. Before the upgrade, students were able to easily adjust wireless router antennas because the routers were exposed in hallway ceilings. This unauthorized tinkering by students would require periodic service adjustments in order to restore proper signal strength for all users. To fix this situation in our newly-constructed buildings, our system was designed to ensure that every room was covered by a strong wireless signal. This configuration resulted in an improved WiFi experience and regular antenna adjustments are no longer required.

How to Keep Students Happy

1) Include the Student Voice
Ensure student representation during the RFP process by including advocates such as resident assistants and student government leaders. Student briefings can also be a helpful way for residents to discuss their concerns. Ask the prospective ResNet provider to meet with select student groups to present its advantage and value proposition.

2) Ongoing Student Participation
Establish an active dialogue with the student community by using multiple channels to collect student feedback. These include online and on-the-ground surveys as well as informal feedback solicited from residents. The more students are included in advance of a ResNet project, the more satisfied they are likely to be with any service changes.

3) Comprehensive 24/7 Tech Support
No user is more likely to need a reliable connection at 3:00 in the morning than a college student with a term paper to finish. When met with technical difficulties, UT Arlington students can troubleshoot network-related problems with online, phone, or on-site vendor support. For example, our vendor provides a 24-hour technical support line that students can call for assistance.

The Don'ts of Residential Networking

1) Don't Assume All Residents Have the Same Needs
When on the university network, all students were limited to the same bandwidth, which would fluctuate during peak hours. By outsourcing the ResNet, UT Arlington was able to offer upgraded levels of service to accommodate speed freaks and download bingers such as gamers. Students who demand increased bandwith can purchase upgraded services for a nominal fee.

2) Don't Get Stuck With Irrelevant Infrastructure
As old TV contracts expired, one of the advantages of outsourcing was the ability to explore an alternate delivery of TV services and bundling services through a single provider. Not only does bundling simplify the management of vendor relationships, but using the same vendor for ResNet, TV, and phone also saves on cost.

In addition, legacy PBX phone systems often are almost completely unused and represent a significant cost. We recommend getting rid of them! For the less than 1 percent of UT Arlington students who want phone service to supplement the cell phone service they already have, we've provided a low-cost alternative in the form of an opt-in VoIP service. This can also be bundled with other network services for extra savings.

3) Don't Provide Partial Service
Before the ResNet overhaul, UT Arlington only provided wireless access in common areas. We have since upgraded to provide ubiquitous wireless coverage across all rooms--even extending up to 50 feet from each building's perimeter. For students today, anytime, anywhere access is an expectation--not an amenity.

4) Don't Forget About Balancing Streaming Speeds and TV Lineup
One important lesson we learned from the outsourcing process: Plan the right mix of TV channels during the RFP. Adjusting the channel line-up is likely more expensive after you are committed to a vendor than when you are in a competitive RFP environment. Be sure to evaluate any additional needs for the student community and make room for extra channels that can be used for housing-related communications or marketing.

Although TV is important, networks must also have a robust data infrastructure to take advantage of free and low-cost digital video content. Our rule of thumb is: If we have to choose between upgraded internet speeds and an expanded television lineup, we go with higher speeds.

5) Don't Underestimate the Competition
As multiple mobile devices and streaming media play an increasingly important role in student life, the strength of the residential network can be a deciding factor in a student's decision to stay on campus or seek off-campus housing accommodations. Our team meets regularly to review the standards set by off-campus housing communities and determine how we can meet and exceed expectations.

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