April 26, 2017

Bandwidth Blues: Satisfying an Insatiable Appetite for Connectivity | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellWhat’s expensive to provide and it seems that there is never enough to go around on a college campus? There’s a reason your students are always complaining about your library’s Wi-Fi.

Your last library satisfaction survey, I am reasonably sure, indicated no students complaining about having too few books on the shelves to satisfy their demand. What I would suspect is that more than a few respondents were less thrilled with the Wi-Fi connectivity in the library building. Even in the absence of a survey, students are rarely shy about expressing their dissatisfaction with the reliability and strength of your library’s wireless signal. Technology updates to add more wireless access points throughout the building can help, but only for a limited time. When it comes to making Wi-Fi available, eventually, demand outstrips the supply. Is there no end to the demand for bandwidth in the library? Apparently not. Nor anywhere else on campus. Satisfying the demand comes at a cost. Is there a better way to meet this need?

Devices Galore

You probably know why we never seem to have enough bandwidth to go around—and chances are you are part of the problem. In a word: devices. There are just too many of them. We’ve probably all seen students in our libraries using a laptop, with a phone nearby and quite possible a tablet of some sort. Or they may be listening to music with Bluetooth headphones. Even if only one of these is actually in use while connected to the wireless network, it’s quite likely the others, especially smartphones, are in wireless mode. That means they continuously search for networks and connect wirelessly when possible. These many devices are constantly competing with each other to grab a share of the network. You know what’s also grabbing a big share of the bandwidth on campus? All those desktop computers constantly plugged into your network.

Who’s the Biggest Hog?

A walk through an academic library on any given day reveals the extent to which the network is constantly under stress. Students live streaming soccer games. Movies and television shows being watched on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. All assignment-related, no doubt. Music is streaming from our own databases as well as Internet music services. It all adds up to strain the system. For students doing academic research and assignments, difficulty in achieving a reliable connection could impair their ability to complete assignments. According to the State of the Residential Network for 2016 Report tablets, desktops and laptops, smartphones, and game boxes are the top bandwidth consuming devices. Desktops and laptops are increasingly used for high bandwidth applications, such as complex online games or intensive networked software. Pair that with the increase in BYOD (bring your own device) behavior by students and nearly everyone in your library every day is using two or three of these bandwidth hogs, often simultaneously. To keep up with demand, the report indicates that two-thirds of the institutions surveyed expect wireless costs to increase over the next two years. It’s a real conundrum for our institutions, with no immediate solutions.

Cost Containment Strategies

One obvious solution is for campus IT to limit or otherwise block access to services with big bandwidth demand. Not so simple, says Wendy McMahon, writing about “The Netflix Factor.” Shutting the spigot isn’t an option when nearly 40 percent of students point to robust wireless access as a deciding factor in choosing which college to attend. Unable to endlessly boost student technology fees, information technology leaders are looking to keep costs under control. A few now treat bandwidth like printing, where students get a free quota to use each semester and pay only if they exceed it. Other institutions choose to outsource network services to a private provider. Since 2013, the number that outsource has doubled from 22 percent to 44 percent in 2016. A lesser tried approach is cooperative networking. Some economies of scale are achieved when a group of institutions pools resources to acquire equipment and manage their networks. For the short-term future, the options for keeping wireless costs in check are limited.

Libraries Can’t Keep Up

The Residential Network report mostly focuses on dorms and dining halls. That’s where the bulk of bandwidth is consumed in the evenings. During the day, our libraries, with their computing commons, study rooms and instruction spaces, must meet the demand. Academic libraries built 30 years ago or more present real challenges for delivering robust wireless owing to concrete walls and packed book stacks. At my own institution, poor wireless in the library was a consistent complaint on student technology surveys. Only by adding two dozen or more access points—at considerable initial and ongoing expense—could we satisfy the student demand for wireless bandwidth. Even now, some nooks and crannies in our 50-plus year old building continue to be Wi-Fi black holes where no reliable connectivity is found.

Change the behavior

We have the data to define the problem. What we need are better solutions for the library. Perhaps we need to get more creative in our thinking about how we tackle it. Instead of just treating the bandwidth blues as a technology issue, let’s consider it a behavioral issue that we can work with students to tweak. Take, for example, the noise problem. We target the behavior by establishing quiet zones and rooms, polite reminders or signage when appropriate, along with noise awareness campaigns and decibel meters. While we can’t expect students to disconnect entirely, we could encourage them to at least switch off the wireless on devices not in use. If students saw the link between the cost of unlimited broadband and the tech fees that come out of their pockets, there could be more effort to help control costs by limiting usage. What would we do if they always left the lights on and the water running? Imagine a campaign to get students to be more thoughtful about the true need for streaming entertainment.

Excessive use of bandwidth on campus is hardly higher ed’s most pressing issue. There’s always the challenge of controlling tuition, graduating students on time, competition with other institutions for a dwindling pool of students, and the list goes on. Academic librarians are rarely in a position to help solve these wicked problems, but perhaps, just as we have with learning materials, there is something we can do to help control the escalating costs from an endless thirst for better connectivity and more bandwidth. With a new academic year about to begin, academic librarians can look for ways to help their institutions beat the bandwidth blues. Making it better is what we’re all about.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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