Cottage-Style Broadband

by Katie Sloan

Aspen Heights switches gears at student cottage-style developments to provide HSIA services that compete with traditional multifamily buildings.


Cottage-style developments are the newest trend in off-campus student living. Combining many facets of new urbanism, a cottage student development is essentially a neighborhood of Colorado-style homes and duplexes leased by the bed. Some recent cottage developments include single-family homes intermixed with three- to six-unit attached homes or even traditional multifamily buildings. Every cottage development has a clubhouse that offers amenities on a par with any multifamily development.

In the fall of 2011, Aspen Heights approached RealPage with an interesting challenge: how to provide its residents with the same high-speed Internet access (HSIA) as multifamily developments without breaking the bank. The company had two new cottage-style developments under way.

• Aspen Heights Auburn will comprise 123 homes, 206 units and 600 beds and will be served by Knology.

• Aspen Heights San Antonio will have 172 homes, 284 units and 844 beds and be served by Time Warner Cable.

In building cottage developments, developers hope to blend the best aspects of purpose-built student housing and traditional single-family neighborhoods. For more than a decade, almost every purpose-built student multifamily community has used a highly managed Ethernet network to provide wired and wireless HSIA to residents. In a typical student building, a fiber backbone runs to building or riser closets, and Cat 5e cables feed each unit. The solution is similar to what is used in local area networks (LANs) in commercial buildings.

A diagram of the cottage wiring RealPage and Korcett rolled out for Aspen Heights.Ethernet, outfitted with managed switches and access points, has repeatedly proved to be the most cost-effective way to provide HSIA. However, the cost of running fiber to more than 100 structures, not to mention the expense of as many closets or surface-mounted enclosures, has been considered prohibitive for cottage developments. Instead, the cable modem or xDSL solutions common to single-family homes were believed to be the best options for cottage developments. All a cottage developer needed to do was provide the phone or cable company with access to the joint trench, and the community was ready to provide HSIA to its residents.

Unfortunately, although cable and DSL services are well-suited for single-family homes and conventional multifamily communities, there is a reason these services struggle in student multifamily communities. Cable modem and xDSL solutions are simply not as highly manageable. Student living is the most challenging environment in which to provide wired and wireless HSIA. Many cottage developments have run into the same problems that previously caused student multifamily communities to move to Ethernet delivery.

Still, wouldn’t building an Ethernet network for a cottage-style community be far too expensive? To be candid, we had our own doubts. Using traditional multifamily designs, we had proposals in hand that quoted more than $750,000 for the fiber alone. Thus, although we had many questions, we knew the Ethernet needed to be laid out differently if we were to have any hope of an affordable solution.

With the help of hardworking contractors Mike Kolb and Scott Hart and of Chris Bowman and David Lippke at the managed Internet service firm Korcett, we first isolated the primary cost drivers of an Ethernet buildout and then crafted a layout focused on reducing the most expensive components. Although most people looked at the open spaces of a cottage development as a problem for low-voltage layouts, we embraced open space as a blank slate without many of the pathway constraints of multifamily construction.

Figure 1 shows the basic wiring layout of each home. Although there are subtle differences due to unit mix, local code and home design differences, we essentially combined the typical apartment distribution panel and building communications room from a typical multifamily development. A managed switch is placed in the bottom of a vented 28-inch panel in each home to serve one or more units. A managed access point is placed above the cabinets in the kitchen. Each panel is fed directly by two stands of fiber.

So far, the cost of wiring a unit is comparable to that of a typical multifamily student development. However, the fiber and data equipment cost is still at least twice that of a multifamily student development, even though we were able to slash the cost to a fraction of the original estimates. We believed the increase in the speed and quality of the HSIA services would have justified the additional cost of fiber and electronics – but, thankfully, we never had to find out.

Unsure whether we would succeed in designing a cost-effective Ethernet layout, we simultaneously drafted layouts and solicited offers for cable modem solutions from the same cable company partners. In all cases the speeds were slower, and in only one case was there any wireless option – yet the pricing for cable modem solutions came back more expensive. As a result, the developments all had better service with the fiber and Ethernet solution and, at worst, broke even on price. Additional modeling seems to verify cost advantage for most cottage developments with four or fewer beds per unit.

These two cottage developments will open in summer 2012. In additional to high-quality wired and wireless HSIA, each community also provides a digital cable TV package. Moreover, the management teams will enjoy the Ethernet-enabled tools now common to multifamily student communities. The management teams have access to the wireless network throughout the community for operations. They can message every resident via the HSIA, receiving acknowledgements with date and time stamps. Management can also slow down the HSIA on individual residents if they fail to pay their rent on time or otherwise violate their leases.

We are thrilled by the assistance and quality of service from our cable company partners at both developments, but we also look forward to the cottage developments opening in 2013 where student housing industry stalwarts such as Pavlov and Airwave will be competing to provide bulk and premium video and HSIA over the same infrastructure.

Although Ethernet deployments are generally considered superior for providing wired and wireless high-speed Internet to student living communities, cable modems have historically been considered a cheaper option. More and more often, this is not the case. Many factors are increasing the cost of cable modem solutions in student living, but support costs may be the most significant. Put simply, cable modems are a less manageable mechanism for providing data services.

In single-family homes, where tenancy is measured in years, investing in a truck roll or two to set up service for a home is cost-effective. However, when 700+ 18-to-21-year-old residents move in over a couple of days for 51 weeks, a couple of truck rolls per residence is a nightmare. As cable modem deployments are more expensive to support than Ethernet deployments, that cable companies charge more for cable modems at the same service levels is unsurprising. Cable modems can be cost-effective, but usually only at lower service levels. As a result, cable modems are a poor choice for most purpose-built student living communities.

Henry Pye is vice president of resident technology services for RealPage ( He can be reached at [email protected].

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