Jul 25 2016

The Netflix Factor: Higher Bandwidth Usage Means Higher Costs for Students

Colleges and universities are finding unique ways to deal with the heavy traffic demands of streaming services.

Campuses across North America are facing a conundrum. They need high-quality Wi-Fi to attract and retain students, but once they’ve obtained it, students gorge on bandwidth with their massive appetites for streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, leaving universities to foot the (sizable) bill for their recreational viewing.

Simply blocking some streaming services or reducing bandwidth access based on priority isn’t an option for many universities. Especially when you consider reports, like this survey from Wi-Fi performance company 7Signal, which found that 38 percent of students say the quality of campus Wi-Fi was a deciding factor when choosing a school to attend.

Instead, universities are tackling students’ demand for high bandwidth with strategies that range from charging overage fees to offloading Internet services to commercial providers.

Cornell University’s Network Usage-Based Billing (NUBB) system has been in effect since 2003. Despite complaints a few years back from a student who petitioned Cornell to eliminate the fees, the system is still working for the school. Students each get 150 gigabytes per month for free, but if they exceed that limit they are charged $1.54/GB. You can read about Cornell’s NUBB here.

Dwight Fischer, assistant vice president and CIO for Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says Wi-Fi for all is an expensive but necessary service.

“Is the university keeping pace with network investment? We have to. This is a cost of running a modern research university,” explains Fischer. “What we’re doing for the students as consumers is also needed for the university’s researchers and instructors. The modern university’s network is akin to electricity today … it simply needs to be there.”

Fischer understands that providing Wi-Fi to all students is part of the cost of attracting and retaining students, but he’s also looking for ways to improve service and lower costs. Step one for Dalhousie was partnering with ISP provider Eastlink for residence Internet services.

“Eastlink is installing their equipment and they are going to provide commercial Internet service to students living on campus, and that’s perfect. Students don’t pay any more. The money that went to IT goes to Eastlink now – they can handle the volume and scale to needs in the future.”

Dalhousie is just one of many universities outsourcing Internet services to students in residence. The Association for College and University Technology Advancement’s 2016 report, State of the Residential Network for 2016, says the number of schools outsourcing or considering outsourcing some or all of ResNet services (a LAN provided by a university that serves residence halls) to reduce costs doubled from 22 percent of schools in 2013 to 44 percent in 2016.

The second part of Dalhousie’s approach to keeping up with demands on their Wi-Fi network is partnering with other local universities. Luckily for Dalhousie, there are 11.

“Since all of the Nova Scotia schools are wrestling with this, we are looking at sharing network management across multiple schools. You don’t have to replicate network management 11 times over at 11 different schools.”

In a recent blog post, Fischer discussed the benefits of sharing IT infrastructure and services.

Whichever coping method universities choose, the demands on Wi-Fi due to streaming traffic aren’t going away any time soon, which means universities must continually invest in their networks to stay competitive.


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