Making The Connection

by Katie Sloan

Making The Connection
Student housing operators and technology service providers work together to keep students current, connected and satisfied.

College students today are hooked up. Electronically, that is. A 2013 report by College Explorer concludes that the average student owns seven Internet-connected devices — phones, computers, gaming consoles, tablets, TV streaming boxes, Google Chrome, Apple TVs, printers … and the list goes on. And is getting ever bigger. According to Apogee, parent company of student housing network and technology resource provider CampusConnect, wireless devices on campuses are tripling every year, and bandwidth consumption increased by 45 percent per student on average from 2012 to 2013. And with the increasing number of devices comes increased demand. The demand for bandwidth in the student-housing environment has skyrocketed over the last few years, with Internet providers proactively taking measures to accommodate developer and student requirements, and owner/operators doing their best to stay ahead of the technology curve.

Satisfying Students
Eric Bronstein, co-founder and executive vice president of The Scion Group, which offers advisory, program management and operational services for student housing, says if the Internet is “down” at one of their properties, they will definitely hear about it at all hours.

“We would have multiple people attacking the problem to get back onlineEric Bronstein immediately,” he says. “’Slow’ Internet is more of a buildup of complaints and/or a measured resident satisfaction issue, but we, and our providers, monitor usage to stay ahead of that issue.” The Scion Group works exclusively with companies that specialize in delivering connectivity in the student-housing environment, such as Airwave Networks, Pavlov Media and Elauwit Networks.

Pavlov Media has several Scion Group properties on its Tesseractiv Content Delivery Network, which delivers content at speeds up to 10 Gigabit to the property and 1 Gigabit (1,000Mbps, or Megabits per second) to residents.  In addition, the company is laying the groundwork for more fiber optic delivery.  Scion Group properties are connected to Pavlov’s Content Delivery Network (CDN) facilities via its fiber optic network.

“The value of a content partner network is often understated in our business,” says Mark Scifres, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Pavlov. “Pavlov Media has dozens of direct connections to our content partners via our national backbone. This allows us to have significant amounts of the most popular content already on our network. A resident using our network often doesn’t have to leave it to fetch content, which improves latency and the end-user experience.”
Pavlov’s CDN connects with Google, YouTube, Netflix and dozens of other content providers. According to Scifres, this arrangement, coupled with the Tesseractiv CDN, means that popular web content can be delivered to Scion Group properties on the CDN at a very high-performance level.

Growing with Technology
Peak Campus Management is another operator trying to stay ahead of the technology curve. In addition to offering 1Gbps (Gigabit per second) on any new projects or major refreshes, the company has new development projects that will be full Gigabit networks using the newest 802.11ac Wi-Fi. But, according to Joe Hardiman, vice president of technology for Peak, the company is being cautious as well, ensuring it selects equipment that has solid remote management capabilities.

“As we’re purchasing new equipment today, we’re buying ahead and planning our purchases in such a way to be upgradeable and flexible,” Hardiman says. “We know the user demands and technology will change quickly. For example, the iPad drove a dramatic increase in small, low-powered, Wi-Fi-only Internet devices. Netflix and other streaming services continue to drive streaming video usage to new heights. We’re not trying to specifically predict the next major change, but to invest in reliable, robust and flexible networks that can adapt to meet the changing user demands of the future.”

To avoid “surprise calls,” Peak Campus Management prefers working with service providers who offer managed networks and regular reports of bandwidth usage. They choose providers who specialize in the student housing industry and have direct employee field technicians in the market, instead of relying exclusively on contractors, or who have a local distribution network in the area.

Joe Hardiman“Our goal is to upgrade as needed in advance of any major ‘bandwidth crunch,’” Hardiman notes. “You really have to plan six months to a year or more ahead of time. Making a major change in bandwidth to a large property often requires extensive physical construction to bring in a new line, and there could be complications with that construction project miles away from the property itself.”

Servicing the Market
Hotwire Communications is the nation’s largest independent provider of fiber-to-the-premises solutions to multifamily communities. Headquartered outside Philadelphia, with regional offices in seven East Coast markets, Hotwire offers gigabit connectivity with IPTV video, Internet, VoIP, wireless and advanced home security products to campus housing, as well as single-family homes, condominium communities, businesses and hotels.

The company’s most recent network initiatives include the acquisition of multiple fiber optic rings in major metropolitan regions, as well as investing in the expansion of its existing fiber networks.

“These initiatives, added to the deployment of Gigabit to the bed-switching infrastructure, ensure that the networks that Hotwire builds will provide many years of service without the need for substantial upgrades while providing a best-in-class user experience,” says David Schweizer, vice president of student housing technologies.

Hotwire recently showcased its robust delivery of wireless and wired Internet systems to over 850 beds in American Campus Communities’ Chestnut Square in Philadelphia, which recently won an Innovator Award and was featured on the cover of May/June Student Housing Business. The property is fed by fiber optic and furnished with an enterprise-grade, building-wide wireless system. Hotwire is also working with pioneering developers like North American Properties (NAP) who recently granted Hotwire’s Fision U division the project of building an IPTV-based, HDTV system on a network capable of delivering Gigabit Internet speeds to the student.

Austin-based CampusConnect has partnered with numerous student housing owners, delivering service to new developments and existing assets that need service upgrades. The company, which provides a fully integrated, total connectivity solution, delivered Gigabit service to University of Texas’ Callaway House in 2013 and, according to President Rob Paver, is currently preparing to announce a slew of new property/developer partners this year. Paver has worked extensively on the owner/developer side and brings his extensive industry knowledge on construction, design and installation to help developers avoid unnecessary and unforeseen costs.

“On the construction end, we’ve found that a well-thought-out, flexible solution ensures freedom from upgrades every few years to meet escalating connectivity demands,” says Paver. “Current building and network infrastructures are not equipped to handle the avalanche of devices in this age of BYOE (bring your own everything). The assumption that every student will only bring with them one cell phone and a laptop doesn’t apply anymore.”

Another technology consulting and design firm leading the way in student housing is Daytona Beach, Florida-based InfiniSys Electronic Architects. President Richard Holtz says that students are always looking for the least expensive solution based on what they hear versus using proven technology that works.

“Our belief is that robust designs and excellent providers lead to happy residents and higher occupancy rates,” says Holtz.

In the last two years, InfiniSys has worked on more than 100 student housing projects, partnering with Aspen Heights, Capstone, Carmel Partners, Inland American, Landmark, Kayne Anderson and many other student-housing developers. Most often, Infinisys is called in to solve issues with projects that either have deficient cabling or use unmanaged wired or wireless Internet for the most demanding of users (college/university students).

“Typical designs, whether for new projects or for retrofits, are fiber-rich,” Holtz notes. “We typically design for a 20-year infrastructure and 5-year electronics life (sometimes shorter for the Access Points and longer for the Ethernet switches). We have been specifying Fiber and Cat5/5e since the mid 90s, and that is still the design of choice.”

Holtz says they like to keep the ratio of students to Access Points at no more than 6:1.

“The future will see further deployment of caching solutions and even redundant Ethernet connections to properties,” he says. “Peering (a direct connection from the property or students) to university and state systems has now also become more common. At some locations this is critical to reduce the requirements for very large outside-public Internet connections (i.e. reduces cost to the property/student). This works best at properties that have large populations of engineering, medical or graphics artist students.”

To Wire or Not to Wire
With the advancement of wireless technology and most recently the rollout of 802.11AC Access Points, and the throughput speeds they can handle, the need for hardwiring properties may be changing, according to Paver.

“However, due to the fact that the actual devices students are bringing to properties aren’t as technologically sophisticated as the most recent Access Points, they will have the option to get faster speeds when they are “plugged in,’” he notes.

Holtz says Infinisys still strongly advocates wiring TVs and gaming consoles or other devices which use streaming video.

“We think the wireless spectrum needs to be preserved for wireless devices where possible and practical,” he says. “Also when designing video surveillance systems or other similar high-bandwidth systems, they must be separated from the student networks for both bandwidth and security reasons.”

Schweizer notes that in newly constructed student housing projects, structured wiring with Cat 5 or Cat 6 is typically installed, which allows secure and consistent Internet connectivity while providing continuity in bandwidth management and redundancy to the wireless system. However, older buildings will not always allow a service provider to offer a reliable hardwired system needed for today’s bandwidth needs, he says.

“Retrofitting older buildings with adequate infrastructure is a capital investment that is needed to keep buildings competitive with newer product coming on the market. Installing robust managed enterprise wireless is also an option.”

Jumping On the Bandwidth
With so many students using so many electronic devices, bandwidth needs are always a top consideration. So how many megabits per building are sufficient these days?

CampusConnect’s latest initiative is the launch of higher education’s very first Gigabit service for student housing communities. By offering speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per resident, CampusConnect enables owner/developer/manager partners to offer the fastest network speed available in student housing today, which is 100 times faster than the average Internet speed available at American households, according to Paver.

In addition, CampusConnect guarantees per student bandwidth levels by providing long-term planning and solutions based on need, along with built-in compensation for ever-growing bandwidth demands. The company also offers 24/7/365 tech support, unlimited device support and upgraded services to meet the needs of both heavy and light users. “We manage what the students bring as the growth of wireless enabled tools/toys continues to grow,” says Paver.
Peak Campus Management, who has buildings with 12 residents and buildings with more than 1,500 residents, tends to work on a per bed or per user basis, assuming every student has multiple devices, says Hardiman.

“We target a per-user experience of at least 30 to 50 Mbps download speed, working with our providers to ensure the internal network electronics, cabling and bandwidth are all sufficient to deliver this,” he explains. “It’s often a lowest common denominator issue with student networks; you can throw all the bandwidth you want at a network, but if the distribution cabling or switches aren’t correct and current, there may be potential bottlenecks inside the network, and all that bandwidth may not be able to be used effectively.”

The Scion Group has been periodically increasing bandwidth and introducing additional solutions, such as caching, at multiple locations, according to Bronstein. The amount of bandwidth required these days depends on the user and other variables, such as whether the system is Wi-Fi only, plug-in only or both, he adds.

“As a very general rule, we are able to deliver high-quality Internet using property bandwidth of approximately 0.5 Mbps per resident (i.e., a 500-bed property would use a 250 Mbps circuit),” Bronstein notes. “But that varies a lot based on other factors.”

And different locales call for different amounts. Students at technical-oriented schools, for example, tend to expect more bandwidth.

“Like everything else in student housing, a good operator needs to really know its customer at each campus and at each community,” Bronstein notes. “For example, we are delivering service up to 1 Gigabit (1,000 Mbps) to each user at our Virginia Tech location (The Village at Blacksburg) starting this fall.  But the most fundamental test is whether users can reliably download streaming HD video without interruption during peak usage, which requires surprisingly moderate bandwidth if managed correctly.”

Hardiman points to general regional trends, as well as some campus-specific trends, which play into the decision of which provider to use at a specific location.
Generally speaking, properties further north tend to show a distinct change in traffic and number of users as the seasons change, whereas properties located in Southern, warmer climates don’t have that same dramatic change, he notes. And properties located near schools with larger arts departments can show clear spikes of upload activity on certain days as students turn in their assignments.

“We will always take these trends into account, but they are not the only factor,” Hardiman explains. “Almost every student housing resident is a moderate to heavy streaming content consumer, and we use this assumption to model the behavior of our typical residents. The regional variations add a little layer of complexity, but are a smaller part of the picture as streaming content consumption continues to grow.”

 — Susan Fishman

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