Student Housing Internet Providers Hustle to Upgrade Capabilities During Pandemic, Says NMHC/InterFace Panel

by Katie Sloan

One of the biggest challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic for student housing internet providers has been upgrading their bandwidth capabilities to ensure that all students in a community have reliable and fast connections.

The proliferation of video calling between students and professors during the pandemic has been a major driver of this hustle to upgrade connectivity services.

The number of megabits per second needed for a Zoom call is something that today’s networks can handle, according to Daniel Myers, president and founder of DojoNetworks and a speaker at the NMHC/InterFace Student Housing Conference. The National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) and InterFace Conference Group co-hosted the virtual event, which took place from Oct. 19 to 22. The organizations’ physical events normally take place in April (InterFace Student Housing) and October (NMHC Student Housing).

One problem that the panelists of the Internet Connectivity and Technology panel spoke about was hosting multiple students on the same network simultaneously. A Zoom call requires two-and-a-half megabits per second to upstream (when the video is input) and downstream (when the video is distributed), according to Myers.

“If you have five students on a call and they only have eight or 10 megabits upstream, then they’re stuck because they’re out of bandwidth and the calls are going to fail,” he said.

Joining Myers on the panel was Chris Pitts, director of sales operations for Spectrum Community Solutions; Mark Scifres, CEO of Pavlov Media; Blaz Vavpetic, chief technology officer of Single Digits; and moderator Nick Hill, chief revenue officer for Synergy Fiber.

Pitts said the need goes further than just upstreaming and downstreaming. He cited a 2018 study done by Cisco that found that an average student had 3.6 devices on a network at any given time. That number is expected to reach upwards of 15 by 2023.

“Students expect the properties to provide Wi-Fi just like water or electricity,” Pitts said. “They expect internet to be available everywhere and immediately.”

Indeed, Vavpetic described connectivity as a “prerequisite” for students. Students participate in internships, schoolwork, gaming and streaming videos, and due to the pandemic, the students who are on campus are in their rooms for much more of the day.

“The internet is how they stay connected to the outside world when they are asked to lay low for a while,” said Vavpetic.

Because of the demand and strain placed on the networks, Scifres said student housing complexes are receiving the same equipment as Facebook data centers. Scifres explained that Pavlov refers to the equipment as FANG-Grade, “FANG” referring to the tech giants of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google.

By installing this high-grade equipment, all parties involved can avoid having to upgrade internet systems every three or so years. Scifres said that in this way, owners and operators can be ready for the future right now.

Pitts warned, however, that when there is a densely populated area, such as a student housing community with thousands of devices competing for a connection, security and performance can suffer if there is no control from the provider.

“It’s like being at JFK [Airport] with no air traffic control,” said Pitts.

Another internet-related stress that the coronavirus pandemic has put on student housing owners and operators involves leasing. Scifres called the new way of virtually walking through properties “tele-renting.”

“Our goal is to help owners lease apartment units as fast as possible, especially given how difficult it is to show properties right now,” said Scifres. “Internet is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’ service, it’s a ‘need-to-have.”

The portal for the NMHC-InterFace Student Housing conference is open for four weeks following the conclusion of the event.

— Alex Tostado

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