More Megabits = Higher Occupancy

by Katie Sloan

Streaming video has forced student housing operators to get creative and catch up to their residents’ bandwidth demands.

The mass adaption of streaming video and gaming approximately two years ago was a call to action for student housing companies to increase bandwidth demands at their properties, and fast.

Shortly after Netflix introduced its streaming service, it was not uncommon for property managers to hear from students that the Internet speed was slow, no matter what time of day.

Realizing that bandwidth demands increase exponentially every year, owners and management firms have gotten wise and are now partnering with established firms in the industry to ensure that their properties have what it takes for the current year, and the ability to expand in the years ahead.

What followed the initial introduction of live streaming video products a few years ago was a rush by student housing operators to live up to a paramount obligation. If students’ iPads and laptops weren’t online consistently and quickly, they moved out, and were quick to tell friends — via social media, in some cases — not to lease at certain properties where connectivity was poor. Today, operators know that Internet is as important as electricity and running water, perhaps even more so.

Because the relationship between occupancy rates and amount of bandwidth is direct and obvious, student housing operators have sprung into action, working with data companies and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) on bringing more fiber to buildings and increasing bandwidth so residents can watch movies and live streaming video without overworking the networks.

“We haven’t really seen any new bandwidth-hogging applications come out since video came on the scene a couple years ago,” says John Griffiths, senior facilities manager with Campus Crest Communities.

With the idea that demand may be stabilized for the time being, student housing companies are retooling their approach to bandwidth, moving closer to higher standards, at a more measured clip.

Today, it’s not uncommon for some management companies to offer 100 megabits of bandwidth per building, which most agree is sufficient for students to watch movies, e-mail and surf within their normal patterns.

“We have a minimum of 100 megabits of bandwidth at all our properties,” says Scott Casey, senior vice president and chief technology officer with EdR. “We’ve started the process of increasing bandwidth this year to 150 or 200 megabits and higher at both new and existing properties and will budget for necessary increases in Q1 of 2013. The challenge for us is not adding the additional bandwidth because we already have the fiber infrastructure, the challenge for us in certain markets is the cost. There are some markets where bandwidth is dirt cheap, then there are others that are 20 to 30 percent higher than what it would normally cost. We’re working closely with Elawuit Networks to research new solutions for bandwidth delivery and to obtain optimal pricing.”

In 2011, EdR spent approximately $1.5 million to add a wireless everywhere solution—in addition to hard-wire connections—to all of its properties, enabling students to carry their devices anywhere on property while staying connected.

“We’ve increased rental rates exponentially as markets will allow, but if anything it’s helping us with our occupancy,” Casey says. “We recoup our costs as part of our rent. Providing a robust Internet solution is just a part of doing business now.”

The objective beyond 100 to 200 megabits is 1 gigabit, which is a goal some companies say they are striving toward, even though properties that do feature this much power are rare. “In the near future, we will have more properties that will have one gigabit of bandwidth,” Casey says. “It’s unprecedented now, but it’s something that will be fairly common in the near future. Video streaming will continue to dictate the demand for more bandwidth.”

The location of a property often prohibits this type of build out. It’s a problem Casey refers to as “the last mile,” when a bandwidth provider has to pay, and subsequently has to pass that cost onto operators, to extend fiber to the property.

“Delivering a 1 gigabit or 10 gigabit pipe to a student housing property is not currently economically feasible,” says Brian Miller, vice president of business development for Ambling Management Company. “In fact, many carriers have not completed their own fiber optic build outs, and in some cases would not be able to deliver this type of throughput to communities in some secondary and tertiary markets.”

Annapolis, Maryland-based Airwave Networks recently ran into a fiber shortfall at a project that required delivering hundreds of megabits to a large student housing property. The company engineered a high-frequency wireless solution that delivers 1 gigabit. Even still, Bill Rinard, CEO of Airwave Networks, cautions against the allure of wireless connections.

“As we install more fiber solutions into student housing facilities, scalable high bandwidth solutions are becoming readily available,” Rinard says. “How much bandwidth you provide to the facility is more about property budgets for Internet service than it is a technical challenge anymore.The challenge is that the wireless spectrum is a limited bandwidth resource so it requires a number of design strategies. Anyone can use this wireless spectrum, which has the potential of creating interference at the property thus degrading the network performance. Property wireless networks need to be constantly monitored, policed and adapted to mitigate interference and expand their performance.”

Campus Crest is experimenting with 1 gigabit delivery at two of its properties. In Waco, Texas, the company is working with Pavlov Media to beta test Pavlov’s content delivery network, Tesseractiv.

And in Maine, the company is working out a different solution. The Grove Orono is a cottage community that consists of 620 beds in 22 buildings, including some townhomes, that is opening for the 2012-2013 school year. Campus Crest is working with Elauwit Networks to supply one gigabit to all the buildings. The property is near the University of Maine.

Elauwit is working with GWI, an ISP based in Biddeford, Maine, which was awarded a $25 million grant by the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. BTOP was forged from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) with $7.2 billion to expand access to broadband services in the U.S.

A 10 gigabit ring now runs around some of the communities near the Campus Crest development, and GWI has partnered with University of Maine to ensure students receive the benefits of this increased bandwidth. Elauwit and GWI are working together to allow residents at The Grove advanced access to the university’s network.

“In most instances, we’re dealing with other large carriers and ISPs that aren’t interconnected with a university,” says Taylor Jones, president and chief technology officer for Elauwit Networks. “The university has its own CDN [content distribution or deliver network], and they are allowing us access to it because the large majority of residents will be students. We are on a gigabit port to get access into the university as well as out to the Internet. Normally, if you buy an Internet circuit from AT&T, then you would have to go though all the AT&T networks to get to the university. In this situation, residents will be just one hop into the university to get a lot faster access to all the resources the university has.”

These resources include tolls such as Blackboard, which is educational software that provides online course delivery. Use of Blackboard is increasing in popularity at many universities.

“Streaming video is and will continue to be a major bandwidth issue,” Jones says. “A lot of classes are going to be video streaming. Many students today don’t even have to go to class anymore. They can log onto Blackboard or watch their classes online. The network has to be optimized for that. If we can work closely with the universities to get their network through fewer hops, that makes it a better experience for the end-user. The big question is, how do we get more access to the resources students want?”

Meanwhile, the evolution of one of the initial causes of increased bandwidth demand — streaming video — is causing a technical problem for owners. The bulk purchasing of cable by student apartment complexes has put a wrinkle in the traditional method of streaming cable content online.

“Where it gets troubling is when bulk services are included in rent,” says Henry Pye, vice president of resident technology for RealPage Inc. “You receive access free of charge to online content when you buy cable TV. To access that service, companies like Time Warner or Verizon require authentication to prove you’ve actually purchased the right to view HBO or ESPN content, but the individual’s name doesn’t exist. If you have a 200-unit property, for all 200 units only the name of the property comes up. At our trial, the renters won’t have access to live programming just yet, but they will have access to all the stored programming in video, be it via a laptop or phone or other device.”

Negotiating the nuances in how students tied into bulk packaging watch television over the Internet is something RealPage Inc. is currently examining. RealPage is conducting a trial with Suddenlink Communications at five communities in Texas managed by Asset Campus Housing. The companies are trying to find solutions that allow renters to efficiently watch online content that is complimentary to subscribers.

— Lynn Peisner

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