The Bandwidth Crunch in Student Housing: Part 1

by Katie Sloan
Henry Pye
RealPage Inc.

A sudden jump in student bandwidth demand poses challenges for owners of student housing and providers serving this market.

A sudden jump in student bandwidth demand poses challenges for owners of student housing and providers serving this market. The need for well-designed and well-managed broadband networks is greater than ever.

Last fall, as students moved back to their off-campus apartments, providers and owners throughout the country witnessed a dramatic shift in online habits, causing an unprecedented strain on the bandwidth provided to communities to support bulk high-speed Internet access (HSIA).

Put simply (admittedly too simply to satisfy a network engineer), there are two principal demands on the bandwidth provided to a community. First, the average user speed or ceiling on overall bandwidth consumption has increased over time. Obviously, it requires more bandwidth to provide an average 4 Mbps x 4 Mbps service to a resident than a 2 Mbps x 2 Mbps service.

Second, certain applications and current online behavior demand more bandwidth for the same user speed than those in the past. Because most Internet data traffic has typically occurred in short bursts, networks are designed to be oversubscribed. Just like mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, a bulk HSIA is not designed for everyone to demand the service simultaneously.

But what happens if the residents do begin to demand bandwidth simultaneously?

Beginning in fall 2008, providers and owners began seeing this behavior. Residents increasingly turned to streaming applications that constantly demand bandwidth, overwhelming community networks. While the uses and the sources were endless, the primarily primary demand came from downloading video programming from sites such as Hulu or via video game consoles such as the PlayStation 3.

Mark Scifres, CEO of private cable operator Pavlov Media, reports on the trend: “Last year we saw a substantial increase in legitimate Internet use for online video content. Student properties are early adopters of new Internet media – and the streaming video needs of YouTube and other Flash-based video sites is now a constant 18 percent of usage and climbing. Much of this content is viewed during peak usage hours, unlike peer-to-peer, which can be time shifted.”

From 2000 to 2008, the average bandwidth needed for the typical off-campus student housing community increased by roughly 20 percent per year. The growth in bandwidth demand followed a fairly predictable pattern, allowing owners and providers to plan ahead for bandwidth needs. Traffic evolved and became more concurrent, but at the same time, average user speeds also increased from 256 Kbps in 2000 to nearly 3 Mbps in 2008.

However, last fall this trend abruptly changed. Between July and September 2008 as students returned to school, bandwidth demand increased an immediate 20 percent − above and beyond the typical 20 percent yearly increase – to reach an extraordinary 35 percent to 40 percent increase in bandwidth demand for the lease year.

Best case, the immediate affects effects were perceived by most residents as a slowing of the bulk services. This occurred in communities that were serviced by the better tier tier-one service providers with significant experience in student housing.

In the worse cases, for communities with second second-tier providers and/or jerry-rigged poorly designed systems, service slowed to a crawl and many applications collapsed.

Challenges to providing bulk HSIA in student housing have occurred in the past. “About five years ago student housing sites experienced a sharp rise in bandwidth due to the proliferation of peer-to-peer applications,” says Scott Creque, chief technology officer of private cable operator Airwave Networks. “In the last year, we experienced another significant increase in demand due to streaming video programming. It is a constant challenge to provide a high-quality resident experience and still keep the owner’s cost affordable.”

While significant, these earlier demands were predominately network management challenges with less long-term pressure on the bandwidth provided to communities to support bulk HSIA.

Since last fall’s move-in demand spike, the increase in bandwidth demand has gone back to the previous 20 percent trend line. Whether this is a trend or coincidence is not yet clear. How long before the trend is disrupted again by the next online behavioral shift?

Estimating a community’s bandwidth requirements more than a few years out is becoming increasingly difficult. Owners would be wise to maintain a healthy bandwidth cushion and, along with providers, must be willing and able to add bandwidth as circumstances change.

Additionally, since the management of networks is becoming increasingly essential to providing any acceptable level of service, we may be looking at the end of jerry-rigged systems, WiFi backhaul (from building to building), and second-tier providers. As will be discussed in greater detail next month, these solutions that have historically struggled may simply collapse under the additional weight of bandwidth and applications. Owners need to ensure that the bandwidth, systems, and providers at their communities can meet these challenges.

Click here for Part 2 of this article .

— Henry Pye is Vice President of Resident Technology Solutions for the RealPage.
You can reach him at [email protected].

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