14 Oct

WiFi deficiencies hamstring UO students, faculty

By Diane Dietz
The Register-Guard

On the third day of classes at the University of Oregon, freshman Caitlin Dieni was stressing out.

She needed to print her class assignments pronto. But she couldn’t get to them because the UO wireless system wouldn’t connect — and click as she might, the links wouldn’t open.

Dieni picked up her smart phone and tweeted her exasperation: “ALL I WANT TO DO IS CONNECT TO THE FREAKING INTERNET. OMG. I FREAKING HATE UO WIRELESS. #havehomework #needinternet”

This has been a common predicament on the UO campus since about fall 2011 when the demand for WiFi connections on campus began outstripping the bandwidth the UO provides.

Weak, slow or broken connections aren’t unusual, students say, and to the newest arrivals on campus it comes as a shock. These young college students weren’t born with a WiFi-connected device in their hands, but they were wireless by puberty.

WiFi to them is as tap water or electricity is to preceding generations; they switch it on, and they expect results.

And as the UO has enrolled ever-increasing numbers of students, the demand for WiFi has soared.

“Our life cannot be without WiFi,” Amy Zhang, a UO linguistics major, said. “We need WiFi any time, any where. We need to connect WiFi to check our schedule, check the (electronic) Blackboard, check the homework. It’s a necessary thing in our life.”

The UO is aware of problems with its WiFi system’s stability, coverage and capacity, and the university devoted $660,000 to tackle the first of these issues, stability — which means maintaining connections — by the end of this year, said Patrick Chinn, spokesman for UO Information Services.

The UO has been able to extend coverage to nearly every building on campus, except a couple of dorms. Today, the campus has 1,439 Internet access points — which send and receive signals remotely — for users to tap.

Capacity is the major problem; it will take expenditures in the millions of dollars to address it, Melissa Woo, vice provost information services, told a gathering of deans, a university-based blog reported. Woo didn’t respond to phone calls from The Register-Guard seeking comment.

Temperamental WiFi is not an easy problem to explain to incoming students, who are accustomed to connecting easily at Starbucks or McDonald’s — or the brew pub down the street.

Many, such as Dieni, left good WiFi connections at their parents’ houses. More than two-thirds of all U.S. households are wireless, according to Strategy Analytics of Newton, Mass.

“If I wanted on, I got on,” Dieni said.

“I thought coming here to a research school — and all the homework is online, teachers put everything online, everything — that they would have really good wireless here,” Dieni said.

The university’s problems, however, are more complicated than a home WiFi owner would encounter. It’s a matter of so many people with so many wireless devices in one relatively small place, Chinn said.

More students with hungry tablets and laptops are on campus. The student population soared by 40 percent — to 24,500 — since 2000, when only 60 people had signed on to the campus WiFi system.

While the UO student population mounted, wireless technology swept onto campus in great waves — laptops, then smart phones, then tablets — and today almost every student on campus has one, two or three of those.

So far this fall, the UO WiFi system is being accessed by 10,000 bandwidth-sucking devices a day, UO figures show.

And still the wireless devices come, into the dorms, Nintendo Wii, Xbox, streaming televisions — and still coming — wearable WiFi, Google Glass and WiFi Watch.

Content follows devices. Students stream Netflix and huluPlus and YouTube. “Watching TV and movies on a WiFi device, that is at most five years old. Those take a lot of bandwidth,” said Professor Andrzej Proskurowski of the UO computer science department.

It’s a “device explosion,” according to EDUCAUSE, the Colorado-based association representing higher education chief information officers. Bandwidth congestion is the No. 1 problem that IT officials face on campuses across the country, according to the organization’s annual survey.

“Faculty, staff, and students want to consume all the content they need — ranging from campus maps to class schedules to campus news and alerts — when they want it, where they want it, and on whatever device they may be using at the time,” according to EDUCAUSE. “Providing this content to them is no longer an extra resource; it is a requirement.”

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