Connectivity On A Post-COVID-19 Campus

by Katie Sloan

It remains unclear exactly which trends will outlast the COVID-19 pandemic, but student housing owners expect that the rise of distance learning will have lasting effects beyond just the 2020 spring and summer semesters. 

In response to the outbreak in early to mid-March, universities were left with little choice but to close their campuses and conduct classes online, requiring students to attend classes via two-way video streaming services. This teaching method is expected to continue in earnest for the foreseeable future, even once colleges allow in-person classes to resume.

“In talking to universities, they’re going to be doing more video lectures, two-way meetings, conferences and small group sessions online,” says Dan Myers, president of Dojo Networks. “With more two-way video meetings, all of a sudden clients need more upstream bandwidth. We’re making sure that all of our deployments can easily handle that. We built them that way, but testing is key.”

In the early days of the outbreak, student housing owners saw the writing on the wall and moved quickly to ensure that their properties would be able to handle the increased online traffic as students would presumably be sheltering in place onsite. Henry Pye, vice president of RealPage, says that luckily the load demand was balanced since so many students chose to attend classes while at their parents’ homes.

 “Overall we saw less bandwidth being utilized,” says Pye. “The few who were still there used more than they ever had before, which isn’t surprising. It’d be a much different problem if the units were fully occupied and students were staying in the units that much.”

Glenn Meyer, president of Pavlov Media’s Multi-Dwelling Units (MDU) Services Group, concurs with Pye, adding that his firm saw an uptick across its multifamily network for both load demand and an increase in utilizations that skewed to the younger crowd, such as gaming. Furthermore, Meyer and his team noticed a shift in traffic patterns from mostly night usage to more daytime.

Before universities across the country welcome their students back this fall, student housing owners are leaning on their internet service providers (ISPs) to prepare for a surge in load demand. Meyer says Pavlov Media’s student housing business has been working at a breakneck pace to prepare the infrastructure onsite and boost bandwidth.

“We have quoted more upgrades for additional bandwidth and network improvements in the past two months than we did in the entire year last year,” says Meyer. “We have seen an increase in owners looking to essentially do an infrastructure review and ensure that their buildings are post-COVID-19 ready for the fall. Owners are understanding that they need to step up to the plate and invest in higher capacity networks.”

With the rise in demand for Zoom, Skype and other two-way video streaming services, more bandwidth will be needed since upstreaming video isn’t cached the same way that downstreamed video content is (i.e. Netflix and YouTube). But Dojo’s Myers says that his firm and others serving the student housing sector are well-equipped to handle the expected uptick as they have embraced every technological innovation in the past with open arms.

“Every year there’s a different evolution in how the internet is used,” says Myers. “This year there’s more upstream need.”

Adam Szymkowiak, founder, president and CEO of IQ Machines, says student housing has always been the most demanding real estate environment to provide internet services, and he doesn’t expect the aftermath of COVID-19 to change that.

“Student housing properties have some of the highest bandwidth users all in one place at one time,” says Szymkowiak. “Any of the requirements for network performances and streaming capabilities were already higher than for your typical ISP in a residential environment.”

Other Capabilities

In addition to overall bandwidth, student housing owners and managers are ramping up for the fall by deploying their ISPs to ensure their properties have the most reliable and dynamic connectivity possible. 

And it’s not just in the units. ISPs are deploying their wi-fi connections as cellular service connectivity solutions throughout their properties. Pye says that connectivity in amenity spaces and common areas is paramount as those traditionally have had spotty cell reception. 

“Modern energy codes, not to mention 5G coming out soon, make it very unlikely that you’re going to have good cell signals within your building,” says Pye. “We now have wi-fi access points (WAPs) throughout all the garages at new projects for that reason. In some student developments we even have them in stairwells. If you’re relying on WAPs for cellphone service, you have to put them in more places.”

RealPage is working with internet of things (IoT) provider Stratis at Union Chapel Hill, a student housing community that Greystar Real Estate Partners is developing near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Pye says that the wi-fi is going to be both the cell solution and IoT solution throughout the property and it will be used for virtually the entire operation outside of life safety tasks like fire detection and first responder systems.

Josh Glover, director of development for Greystar, says Union Chapel Hill is set to open in early August and that each wi-fi access point within the property will provide 1 gigabits per second speed to users throughout the property.

“Residents can enjoy gigabit speed internet in their home, walk down to the pool and then visit a study room, all without losing their wi-fi connectivity at any point,” says Glover. “This is a major market differentiator for our property, and is now a consideration that all properties should contemplate when evaluating their internet offerings.”

IoT firms are also being tasked with managing self-guided tours for prospective residents, which is a preferable leasing method if students are trying to adhere to social distancing protocols. Ryan Buchert, chief technology officer of Stratis, says that the feature is a staple in the IoT industry’s “sidewalk to sofa” approach to the business.

“We’ve always been focused on self-guided tours and saving time and money, which was the original thought behind them,” says Buchert. “The reasons for self-guided tours have changed, but because that’s always been a big concentration for us, it hasn’t changed our workload much.”

Melissa Morales, vice president of multifamily operations at Boingo Wireless, says that her firm utilizes its property management system Ground Control to stay in direct communication with the operations team and the residents.

“We’re increasing our communications at our properties, ensuring we’re meeting their needs as far as resident notifications and maintenance and also to respond,” says Morales. “If we need to send a technician out, we’re circling back with the property manager to understand what their expectation is. We want to figure out if there’s additional requirements or distancing that needs to be handled.”

Leveraging Data

ISPs are the gatekeepers in a lot of ways for the student housing sector as they monitor internet connectivity and usage at their clients’ properties. Increasingly, student housing owners and operators are able to access that information themselves via the ISP’s online portal, but interpreting the data and navigating the pressure points are best done as a collective.

During the spring semester amid the COVID-19 outbreak, student housing owners and operators needed to know how many students remained at their properties. Students for the most part were still paying rent but owners knew that alone was an unreliable tracking method as a significant swath of the rentership had returned to their parents’ homes. 

Owners and operators consulted with their ISPs to get a better idea of their properties’ occupancy levels, and those firms were able to quantify that amount more reliably by looking at the number of active devices on the network during a set period of time.

“For most of our properties, the user logs in with a set of credentials that are unique to that resident, and then we have a record of all the devices that are on the network that are registered to a particular resident,” says Szymkowiak of IQMachines. “We have data that tells us at any given point how many of those devices from each resident are currently active. You can also track the bandwidth of a particular resident and usage over time. That’s a pretty good indicator if you have the types of usage that indicates the person is present and their devices are on the network, especially for things like phones.”

ISPs and IoT vendors are also able to access and monitor smart lighting and thermostats and catch leaks at the property level, which can all be done remotely without any equipment onsite.

“If you have modern wi-fi deployment, that’s all you need,” says Pye of RealPage. “The smart thermostat is nice for students to control their units, but the real reason it’s there is preventative maintenance. Via cloud analytics, maintenance can manage the air handlers, condensers or heat pumps.”

An integrated network allows property managers to deploy maintenance technicicans into units without residents having to be present. Overall, the outbreak of COVID-19 will enhance the way that ISPs and IoT firms are improving sanitary conditions, which should help stop or slow the spread of the virus when students return this fall.

“In response to COVID-19, there are initiatives like tracking how many people have used a certain door,” says Buchert of Stratis. “That can trigger a new cleaning. We’re also looking for high-density scenarios that will alert the property manager when something happens.”

Plans for the Fall

Universities and colleges around the nation have announced they will reopen campus for the fall semester, including Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Rice University in Houston, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Columbia University in New York City and the University of Florida in Gainesville. 

Many other school systems across the country are working toward reopening and are still weighing online-only classes, reopening in earnest or a hybrid plan. Many such plans are expected to be announced during June, which will have a direct impact on the student housing sector. 

“When these properties open back up and students return to universities this fall, they’re going to be returning very likely earlier than they normally would,” predicts Morales of Boingo.

Schools such as University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill plan to start and end their fall semesters early. Colleges moving forward with this route would end the fall semester at Thanksgiving and would also forego fall break to limit travel back and forth for students.

ISPs are gearing up their response times to any issue that crops up, no matter how minor, for when classes do resume, whether it be in-person or online.

“The customer experience is the most important out of everything, regardless of the technology,” says Myers. “It’s all about delivering an amenity that customers are thrilled with and when they have issues, we want to solve those quickly.”

Szymkowiak explains that due to the difficulties of sending technicians to assess issues, IQMachines has created a solution where if a network goes down, there are backups in place to get the network back online.

“During COVID-19, it’s a lot more difficult to rapidly dispatch technicians to different worksites,” says Szymkowiak. “We have been able to make use of some of that redundancy we have designed into our system to ensure that we continue to deliver the service no matter what the situation.”

Being able to get the systems back quickly is the number one priority of any ISP, especially in the student housing industry where students more than ever before will need to stay online to attend classes, participate in organizational meetings and have one-on-one interactions with teachers and academic coaches. 

“Everybody always speaks about how important internet service is but to people in student housing, it’s more important than running water,” says Szymkowiak. “That has become more true during the COVID-19 crisis because students are relying on their internet service, not only as a social connection to the outside world but for their school work.”

— John Nelson and Alex Tostado

This article was originally published in the May/June 2020 issue of Student Housing Business. To subscribe, please click here

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