Digital Devices Invade Campus, and Networks Feel the Strain

Ty Wright for The Chronicle

J. Brice Bible, Ohio U.'s chief information officer, displays some of the digital devices students use in their dormitory rooms that have contributed to network overload.
February 11, 2013

In mid-March 2011, wet weather and finals week forced many Ohio University students indoors. Inside campus libraries and dormitory rooms, thousands of students connected to the Internet not only to study with online systems like Blackboard but also to watch movies and TV shows on Netflix.

The second, more leisurely activity was soon eating up the network's bandwidth, and slowed Blackboard to a crawl as students prepared for final examinations. Network technicians twice decided to restrict Netflix traffic, but both attempts unexpectedly backfired, causing Internet outages across the campus.

The event has come to be known as the "virtual flood" among some network technicians at the university. It happened even though the university had already increased the amount of bandwidth at its data center by 10 percent, and had instituted an Internet speed limit in its residence halls, essentially capping the amount of bandwidth per user to about five megabits per second—still faster than many home broadband plans. That had helped, but the university still couldn't entirely serve the campus's hunger for bandwidth. Even now, capacity is barely outpacing demand, according to campus leaders.

Computers, smartphones, wireless printers, tablets, iPods, Xboxes, handheld gaming systems, e-readers, smart TVs, Blu-ray players—students now bring an arsenal of devices to connect to campus networks, often using multiple gadgets simultaneously. And campus networks, as well as some information-technology staff members, are buckling under the pressure.

In a report released last March by the Association of Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education, about 76 percent of chief information officers surveyed said they were worried about increasing bandwidth use. In the same report, 77 percent listed an increasing number of mobile devices as a major concern about future network strain.

The spike in gadget ownership at Ohio University is drastic, but administrators on other campuses say they are seeing similar patterns. In 2008, 15,000 student devices were registered on Ohio's network. Three years later, that number had risen to 70,000.

All of those Wi-Fi-hungry devices eat up bandwidth and require IT staff members to learn how to help students plug them all in to the network, said J. Brice Bible, Ohio University's chief information officer.

For now, he said, he feels his staff —and the network—has adjusted to this new, multidevice world. But who knows what will come next?

"It's a moving target," he said.

Academics v. Amusements

It's a target that has been on the move for more than a decade. In 2000 the music-sharing application Napster was wreaking havoc on campus networks. At Indiana University at Bloomington, Napster was reportedly eating up 61 percent of the college's bandwidth. While many peer-to-peer programs would eventually be banned from campuses because of their dubious legality, Napster and other early file-­sharing applications were blocked or slowed by some campuses because of the sheer amount of bandwidth they consumed.

Other bandwidth bandits soon moved in to take their places. Video- and music-streaming Web sites like YouTube, Spotify, and—possibly the biggest headache of them all­—Netflix are now consuming large amounts of bandwidth. And that is exacerbated by the number of devices all using those services.

Ohio now has a limit on how much Netflix material each user may view during the day, and in 2010 the University of Oxford experimented with a temporary ban on Spotify, a music-streaming service. The ban prompted anger from students and lasted just one term.

Administrations must decide how to balance academic uses of the network with recreational uses, said Jack Suess, chief information officer at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. That can be a tricky combination to figure out, especially for students who live on the campus.

"Probably 70 percent of our traffic is video of some form, either YouTube or Netflix," Mr. Suess said. "Our view, especially in the dorms, is that we don't want to cut them off from the things they would be able to do at home."

UMBC, an institution with about 13,000 students, has not had as many problems with its network as has a larger university like Ohio, but the number of devices is still a concern, Mr. Suess said. An estimated 8,000 students are on the campus at any given time, he said, with more than 10,000 active connections.

A recent study conducted by Damian Doyle, coordinator of networks and security at UMBC, examined how many devices were connected in the library's main study area. While only 120 people were using the room, there were more than 300 active connections, Mr. Doyle said.

Mr. Suess chalked it up to the way many students now multitask while they study or do homework.

"A lot of these students are running YouTube, but what they're doing is listening to music through YouTube, using up bandwidth, while they're connected to the Internet studying," Mr. Suess said. "It's just background noise."

Multitasking students are causing a similar kind of problem at Virginia Tech. Too many devices are fighting for limited Wi-Fi airspace. In a large lecture course, a professor may try to connect via wireless to use an application for the class, said William C. Dougherty, executive director of network infrastructure and services there. Meanwhile the 300 students in that lecture are also connected to Wi-Fi on their laptops. While they may be using the laptops for class-related purposes, they're also likely to be surfing the Internet, chatting on Facebook, or watching YouTube videos on their computers, on their smartphones, or both.

"Obviously we're going to see poor performance with the professor's application or the signal is going to be dropped," Mr. Dougherty said.

Not Just Students

And the problem isn't limited to lecture halls.

A recent poll of 60 students at Virginia Tech found that more than half of those living in dormitories regularly use two or more devices at any given time. And those students typically connect to the college's wireless network rather than one of the two wired ports in each dorm room, which provide faster connections. That puts a strain on the Wi-Fi receivers, which are usually placed in common areas rather than individual rooms.

"We thought they'd take advantage of those ports, but everyone wants Wi-Fi," Mr. Dougherty said.

Wireless access also poses a challenge in Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium, where there are no public Wi-Fi access points but where football fans often want to connect during games. Devices attempting to connect to a wireless system in the stadium set up for ticket scanners sometimes render it nearly useless.

It's not just students watching Netflix or football at Virginia Tech who are causing problems, though. The issue has even crept into faculty offices.

"It can be the staff, too," Mr. Dougherty said. "I have two laptops, an iPad, and a smartphone. I'm just as much of a Wi-Fi hog myself."

At Ohio University, Mr. Bible said professors often have more Internet-connected devices than the students do.

"But in my opinion, priority traffic needs to be there, with the faculty and staff," Mr. Bible said. "It has to be. I would even put more restrictions on students, if need be, to help with teaching and research."

Increasing the amount of bandwidth is another way Ohio and colleges like it are combating the gadget overload, Mr. Bible said. But getting ahead of the demand can be costly. From 2007 to 2013, IT costs at Ohio have risen an estimated 107 percent, Mr. Bible said, with most of that $174,000 increase being used for improved Internet service and copyright-management software to help staff members monitor peer-to-peer sharing.

In the 2012 survey of college tech leaders conducted by the IT professionals' association, nearly 90 percent said the central IT department paid for the cost of the residential network's bandwidth. And nearly 60 percent of the respondents said they did not recover the cost of that bandwidth through additional fees.

Before long, more restrictions and more bandwidth may both be coming to Ohio. In any case, more devices will be. This fall, Mr. Bible said, Ohio University's 35,000 students are expected to connect 100,000 devices to its network.