Campus Networks Feel the Pinch as Demand Rises and Budgets Shrink

The sharp increase in the number of Internet-connected devices that students are bringing to campuses has left many universities struggling to find ways to provide the necessary bandwidth to meet the demand, according to a survey of campus technology officials released this week.

A report describing the survey’s findings, released by Acuta, the Association for Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education, illustrates concerns that the trend of increasing bandwidth use shows no signs of slowing, driving up costs as budgets are tightening.

The “2013 Acuta/Nacubo State of ResNet Report” is the technology association’s second annual study of the issues facing campuses and their residential networks. The group collaborated with the National Association of College and University Business Officers for this year’s survey, and the respondents include business and financial officers, as well as information-technology  administrators.

The survey, conducted in November and December 2012, drew 280 respondents, representing 251 colleges and universities. It provides a snapshot of the current state of residential networks and reflects administrators’ concerns about rising costs, limited tech support, and growing demands on their networks.

“We experienced the explosion of bandwidth needs that came with bring-your-own-device policies and saw what that was doing to campuses,” said Corinne Hoch, Acuta’s chief executive officer. “We feel like it’s really important to know what’s really going on, and benchmarking is always a good tool to help do that.”

That influx of gadgets has administrators worried about their ability to meet future demands on their residential networks, Ms. Hoch said. Sixty-one percent of respondents said they were concerned or very concerned about their networks’ ability to meet future demands, while only 40 percent said they had a strategic plan for dealing with the growth.

Similarly, 61 percent of respondents said they expected network costs to rise over the next two years, but less than than 40 percent expected an increase in their operating budgets to help bear those costs. Ten percent projected a decrease in their budgets.

Even with the rising price tag, more universities are allowing an unlimited number of devices to connect to campus networks, with 80 percent of the respondents reporting that they put no restrictions on how many devices students can plug in. That’s an increase of 12 percentage points since the 2012 report.

Another challenge highlighted in the report is a lack of 24/7 network support. While most universities provide some form of phone support, according to the study, a majority of institutions do not provide that support around the clock. But as students living in residential halls are becoming more tech savvy, Ms. Hoch said, they help one another trouble-shoot problems when formal IT help is not available.

“The students are more and more knowledgeable and self-sufficient in many ways,” she said. “They’re becoming much more technologically savvy, teaching us as well teaching themselves.”

Dee Childs, chair of Acuta’s environmental-scanning committee, said understanding the current state of residential networks can help administrators better gauge what students are expecting when they come to a university, a factor that can affect enrollment. For example, Ms. Childs said, if a prospective student visits a campus overnight and finds that it is not possible to get access to entertainment services like Netflix or to do homework online easily from a dormitory room, then the student may choose another college.

“Not all administrators realize,” Ms. Childs said, “that it’s a solid line, not a dotted line, between network performance and the choice to attend that university.”

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