As Ithaca College struggles with complaints of poor Wi-Fi connectivity across campus since last semester, officials said the college’s six-year contract with Apogee, its Internet provider for students in residence halls, is set to expire at the end of August 2014. Officials have yet to make a decision about a contract renewal.
According to rankings of best campus wireless availability, updated weekly by alternative online university guide CollegeProwler.com, the college comes in at No. 1319 with an average student rating of 7.87 out of 10. Cornell University, whose wireless provider is Verizon FiOS, was significantly higher up the list at No. 20 with a rating of 9.46 out of 10.
It’s a common misconception that Apogee provides Internet for the entire campus network, when in fact it is only responsible for the residence halls. Information Technology Services is responsible for the Internet on the central campus in the academic and administrative buildings, though both provide the equipment for wired and Wi-Fi connections on the campus network. The recent surge of wireless devices on campus, however, has put a strain on both providers.
In a survey conducted this year by the education-technology organization Educause, 76 percent of undergraduates at U.S. based institutions reported owning a smartphone, compared with 62 percent in 2012. Fifty-eight percent said they owned at least three wireless devices.
Ed Fuller, associate vice president of Information Technology Services, said his department was not equipped to handle the recent proliferation of Internet-capable wireless devices that began to affect the college last semester.
“For whatever reason, it took us by surprise,” Fuller said. “It’s what it is, but we’re making it a top priority in ITS to get [Wi-Fi incompatibility] remediated.”
However, Jack Powers, associate professor of media arts, sciences and studies, said there have been problems with the Wi-Fi for the past couple of years. But they became significant for him last semester when he could no longer get Wi-Fi in several classrooms in the Roy H. Park School of Communications. He said Internet access is vital because he gives online exams in class and his Introduction to Media Industries class builds apps using an online application for smartphones.
To combat these problems, Powers asked about 100 of his current students to send him their concerns about wireless connectivity, which he then forwarded to the Park School dean’s office, ITS and Gerald Hector, vice president of finance and administration, as anecdotal evidence.
Powers said he was impressed with the response after relevant officials were made aware of student frustrations. Through a collective effort, ITS added extra access points to the second floor of the Park School, and Park School personnel removed wireless capabilities on hard-wired computers that were unnecessarily pinging the system. But these are only short-term solutions, Powers said.
“I think the long-term solution is obvious,” he said. “We need to have a wireless network that is one of the best in the country. Whatever the latest technology is, whatever allows each of us to go online simultaneously and watch video and do everything we need to do is the best-case scenario.”
Colleges across the country are struggling to satisfy their students’ insatiable hunger for bandwidth, though poor connectivity results when this demand outpaces capacity, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
ITS conducted a comprehensive survey of its wireless network in early October to address these concerns and also provided additional access points. As part of this survey, ITS hired Apogee consultants to go from room to room in every building on campus to analyze current access point placement, room design, set-up, capacity, building materials and other factors that affect wireless performance. Results of the survey are expected to be analyzed and submitted to the college in mid-November.
Hector said the ITS survey will develop a framework for the college to make a data-driven decision based on the results.
“ITS and Apogee are the ones that are going to be doing the work,” he said. “They’re going to be the ones analyzing, but at the end of the day the decision rests with me and the President’s Council in terms of where we’re going to go.”
Apogee launched a revamp of its wireless network, ResNet, last spring. While the residential network company provides the equipment for the Wi-Fi on the central campus, it is not responsible for the actual Internet connection. Charles Brady, the president and CEO of Apogee, said this renovation was not related to the looming expiration date of his company’s contract with the college.
“Because Wi-Fi is changing so rapidly, our business model at Apogee is to meet and or exceed student demand,” Brady said. “We had hit a point at Ithaca College where we were not able to maintain the levels of service and student satisfaction that are acceptable to us and our clients. That’s really what guides us.”
Fuller said the site survey is tapping into Apogee’s engineering experience on the campus network to make recommendations on what needs to happen outside of the residence halls.
“They’ll do the engineering recommendations in terms of what’s necessary to remediate the problems on the central campus [including] academic and administrative buildings, and either they or someone else will actually take on the duties of putting that plan in place,” he said. “Apogee is the leading contender.”
Several buildings in the college have felt the effects of these wireless issues in some capacity. Michael Richardson, associate dean for faculty and special initiatives in the School of Humanities and Sciences, said the Wi-Fi in Williams Hall and the Center for Natural Sciences is inefficient.
“I’ve heard from a number of computer science professors that it’s been very difficult, especially when they’re using laptops as part of a classroom exercise,” he said.
Ben Hogben, the college library access services manager, said Wi-Fi connectivity in the library has also been poor, even though ITS installed more access points last semester.
“We occasionally get reports from our patrons that wireless is not working for them on a consistent basis,” he said. “So they might connect and then the connection might drop after a few minutes.”
Hector, who joined the college July 1, said he is considering several options to best meet the needs of the campus community, including the possibility of hiring a new wireless provider.
“My goal is to find the best solution,” Hector said. “I’m not wedded to a vendor. I’m wedded to the outcomes.”
He also said fixing the campus-wide problems with the Wi-Fi is one of his top priorities in his new job.
“At this point, I’m just looking to deal with the issue, knowing full well that students are being impacted in terms of their classes and ability to do work,” Hector said. “I’m more solution-oriented than going backwards and trying to figure out what caused it.”