Explosion of Wireless Devices Strains Campus Networks

Narayan Mahon for The Chronicle

Bruce Maas, chief information officer at the U. of Wisconsin at Madison, says he recently talked with a student who uses 18 wireless devices. Mr. Maas himself carries three.
October 14, 2013

A few weeks into the fall semester, Bruce Maas, chief information officer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, received an e-mail from his chancellor: A junior living in campus housing was frustrated with the wireless network, which he said often left him unable to connect to the Internet. Mr. Maas, who describes the university's wireless capacity as "very robust," asked his networking staff to investigate.

"Like many students, he had brought in his own wireless router, which connected many different personal wireless devices," Mr. Maas says. "The wireless router was conflicting with other wireless routers that other students had brought in, and they were all conflicting with our wireless network."

Wisconsin is no anomaly. Information-technology departments around the country are being tested by an explosion in the use of personal, Internet-capable wireless devices on campuses. Mr. Maas, who carries three wireless devices himself, says he recently talked to a student who uses 18. The phenomenon—sometimes referred to as BYOD, or "bring your own device"—is not confined to higher education, but has nevertheless created a unique confluence of demands on campuses, where the core customers have a voracious appetite for mobile technology.

Campus-technology officials say they struggle to maintain and expand wireless-network capacity in heavily taxed locations, such as lecture halls, common areas, and sports venues. They are excited about integrating wireless technology into classroom learning, but worry about safeguarding personal and research data increasingly viewed on mobile devices. Underscoring their concerns are budget realities and an obligation to transparency and collaboration.

"There are campuses that have a lot more resources than other campuses," said Elias G. Eldayrie, chief information officer at the University of Florida. "In some areas, I do believe higher education has made great strides. In some areas, we still have a long way to go. For the most part I think we are all in the same place trying to figure out how to leverage the technology and bring value added to our organizations and our customers."

College students are more gadget-laden than ever, reflecting a larger shift in consumer habits.

The growth in the use of smartphones—56 percent of Americans now own one, up from 35 percent in 2011, according to data from the Pew Research Center—means that many people no longer wait to sit down at a desktop computer to correspond with colleagues or check bank-account balances. The introduction of tablets like the iPad has fueled momentum in on-the-go computing.

In a survey conducted this year by the education-technology organization Educause, 76 percent of undergraduates reported owning a smartphone, an increase of 14 percentage points compared with the previous year. Fifty-eight percent said they owned at least three Internet-capable devices. Faculty and staff members are, like Mr. Maas, toting their own share of hardware.

"What has really happened over the last couple of years is the proliferation of a given student or a given staff member coming to campus not just with one device but with multiple," says Brian D. Voss, chief information officer at the University of Maryland at College Park. "You will see now a student with a laptop and a smartphone, or a tablet and a smartphone, or sometimes all three."

"These devices don't discriminate whether the student is using them or not—they will hook up to a Wi-Fi network when they can," Mr. Voss says. "So what we have seen is a rapid growth in the number of direct connections to our campus network."

His department has roughly doubled the number of wireless access points, to nearly 6,000, during the past three years.

Ballooning Wi-Fi Budgets

A survey at the University of Florida showed that 98 percent of students come to campus with Internet-capable devices, says Mr. Eldayrie, adding that he has yet to meet the other 2 percent.

Three years ago, his department spent $400,000 on Wi-Fi installation, Mr. Eldayrie says. This year, information-technology officials are spending about $1-million, and they have doubled the number of wireless access points on campus, to more than 2,500. The investment is part of a comprehensive personal-mobile-device strategy that touches on everything from governance to student services, he says.

The demands on the wireless network are especially acute in lecture halls where professors use mobile apps to collect real-time responses from students, and during football games.

"When the Gators are playing, the town is double in size," says Mr. Eldayrie. "All these people come to the campus expecting connectivity. The change has been dramatic but exciting. The University of Florida and other institutions are trying to keep up with it, or even stay ahead of it."

Maintaining wireless networks has quickly become the most visible function of information-technology departments, officials said. Some faculty members are integrating the devices into lectures, using mobile apps to collect real-time feedback and conduct quizzes.

"Once you know everyone in the room can be communicated with through texting or computing more generally, you open up a whole pile of other opportunities," says Gerry McCartney, chief information officer at Purdue University, which is developing its own slate of classroom learning apps. "We are doing things that have actually changed the nature of instruction in the classroom."

The network's performance affects not only current students and faculty members' campus experience, but also recruitment: Prospective students' assessment of the information-technology environment of a campus starts with wireless.

This year Georgetown University surveyed high-school recruits about what they were looking for in terms of technology on a college campus. Wireless Internet was at the top of the list, says Georgetown's chief information officer, Lisa Davis.

"If you think about what we have in our homes these days and how we are operating from our homes, we expect that same experience when on campus," Ms. Davis says. "What was really interesting about the data was students, when choosing a university, don't even bother to ask, 'Do you have Wi-Fi?' It is expected. It is a given."

There are now 11,685 wireless devices using the Georgetown network, a 20-percent increase during the past nine months, Ms. Davis says.

Security Concerns

The proliferation of personal, Internet-capable devices on college campuses also adds a new wrinkle to already complex information-security concerns, officials say. Smartphones and other electronics are treasure troves of data, including bank-account information and user names and passwords, all of which can be exploited if not properly guarded.

"There is great opportunity and great potential, but there is also great concern about data, the loss of data, accessing or getting unauthorized access to data," says Peter J. Murray, chief information officer at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. "We have a hospital here. You don't want to have patient health information get lost or get onto a device that is going to be breached."

Many colleges are taking a layered approach to decrease the risk, including requiring that devices that use a campus network have specific authentication and encryption software. At American University, in Washington, students and employees can register their devices with the information-technology department, which then has the ability to wipe them clean in the event that they are lost or stolen.

"The criminals continue to look for the lowest barrier of entry," says Cathy Hubbs, chief information-security officer at American. "They are all about the credentials. Let me get the credentials. The attack surface has increased with all these multiple devices because now there are all these different entry points."

Complicating the security issue is academic institutions' obligation to openness and collaboration.

"If you think about what a university does, it is about discovery of knowledge and sharing of knowledge," says Mr. Voss, of Maryland. "It is hard for us to have bulletproof firewalls because we are encouraging collaboration among institutions. It is hard for us to have absolutely draconian rules about what devices can connect and how they can connect, because we are in some ways a service entity."

Even simple steps like enabling a passcode on an iPhone can help to reduce the risk, officials say.

At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Mr. Maas estimates there are 100,000 personal devices being carried by students alone.

"To me, what it says is the consumer industry has done a great job of supplying goods that people want to buy," Mr. Maas says of the mobile shift. "They are obviously satisfying the needs of people. This is going to continue to grow, and it is going to grow in other ways. There will be more and more devices that are hooked into the Internet."