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Universities are attempting to adapt to increasing Wi-Fi demands by students

Junior Henderson Beck works on his computer using Carolina's academic platform Sakai.

As students bring more wireless-ready devices to college, schools are tasked with meeting assumptions that Wi-Fi is available everywhere. 

The rapid pace of technology advancement leaves some schools questioning how they can fill the growing demand for connectivity on campus.

“In the past, it was important to talk about how many buildings were wired,” said Christopher Waters, assistant vice president and chief information officer for technology at Elon University. “We used to hand out a thousand cables a year so people could plug in. Now, we’ve moved to asking how many buildings are wireless.”

When the internet was first incorporated into classrooms, schools poured millions into hardware and wires, like Ethernet cables, so students could connect to information. Wireless internet has since replaced wired internet as the standard of student expectations for connectivity.

Students now expect accessible wireless internet wherever they go. Information technology departments across the nation are struggling to keep up with the demand.

“We’ve gone from 4,000 wireless access points to 10,000 access points,” said Jim Gogan, assistant vice chancellor for communication technologies at UNC. “Their life cycle is five to seven years, so you have to have a refresh strategy.”

A single wireless access point costs over $1,000, according to the UNC Information Technology Services website. Such high costs require universities to use resources carefully. Schools spend to provide internet for classrooms, but student demands reach beyond learning.

More devices are being used for leisure, such as social networking and video games, than network resources made for learning, said Dean Rodeheaver, senior campus planner at Credo, a higher education consultancy.

Universities nationwide consider these needs when planning costly, long-term strategies. Ohio State University is rolling out an almost $19 million plan to expand wireless access to the university's football stadium and an $11 million plan to provide students with iPad Pros, The Lantern reported. At other schools, administrators will have to plan around gaps in funding.

For UNC, recent initiatives strive to balance expectations for internet with the service standards set at peer institutions. 

“We looked at (OSU's) plan," Gogan said. "We can’t do that."

He said UNC’s approach differs in scope and funding.

“Tearing out concrete is ridiculously expensive,” Gogan said. 

Instead, the school recently partnered with mobile providers who funded their own expansion of cellular data coverage to meet needs in Kenan Stadium. To fund other measures, UNC started charging departments a portion of their faculty payroll, replacing the old model of one-time fundraising, Gogan said.

“That pays for ongoing maintenance of the wireless network,” he said.

Rodeheaver said resources for wireless networks may be better used elsewhere. 

“To use Wi-Fi for learning, we need to understand how and where connection occurs,” he said.

Rodeheaver emphasized the understated importance of faculty interaction in the classroom. He said faculty-student connectivity provides better returns than wireless connectivity.

“There’s a huge range of technology goals to tackle," he said. "Wi-Fi is not a solution for everybody."


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