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By: Sophia Raspanti
Reliable internet access is essential for a successful college experience. With a majority, if not all, of college courses requiring internet access for assignments, study resources and more, high-speed, consistent network connection is paramount to student success. Beginning in 2018, student voices and data suggested that campus internet connection was not meeting expectations for resident demands. Through the SkyFactor residence survey, which is administered by Carolina Housing each year, students voiced concerns about internet connectivity in the residence halls.
As shown in the chart below, students rate their satisfaction on a scale of 1-7, with 1 being the least satisfied and 7 indicating highest satisfaction. Carolina Housing aims for student satisfaction rates in any service offered to be 5.5 rating or higher. Looking at the data collected in 2018, the Carolina Housing team recognized a drop in satisfaction and created a plan to increase internet connectivity and speed for student residents over the next 8 years.
Keeping up with internet demands and necessary infrastructure is incredibly challenging and costly. Therefore, Carolina Housing partnered with UNC networking to create a comprehensive, 8-year, $4M network upgrade plan. While the COVID-19 plan delayed efforts, in the summer of 2022, Carolina Housing started with $615K of wireless upgrades to Craige, Eringhaus, and Cobb residence halls. Data collected from subsequent SkyFactor surveys have indicated that our efforts have been successful, and student satisfaction has increased in the upgraded residence halls, as indicated by the graph below.
During the summer of 2024, Carolina Housing will focus on implementing a $506K plan for network upgrades in Morrison Residence Hall.
While the information above gives a great overview of the comprehensive multi-year plan, how exactly are these network upgrades taking place? What is the technology being used? And what are some barriers to this project? To answer these questions, I spoke to Phil Young, the Program Director of ResNet, who walked me through the details of the project.
When Phil Young joined the ResNet team 4 years ago, he began by working to help faculty and student staff with network and IT needs before being promoted to Program Director last December. As ResNet is responsible for network and IT support for Carolina Housing, Young stepped into a role where he continued the comprehensive network update plan. Utilizing data from IT support needs, the SkyFactor residence survey, amongst other smaller surveys and student complaints, ResNet and Carolina recognized the need to provide comprehensive network upgrades for students. With constantly changing technology, standard network upgrades are always on the radar, but due to falling student satisfaction, the team realized the need for a more comprehensive plan.
To increase the speed and connectivity of internet services, multiple approaches were necessary. First, ResNet began with increasing the number of access points within residence halls. Prior to the network upgrades, many of the access points were located within hallways, but not in individual rooms. While these hallway access points were sufficient in previous years, the number of devices each student brings and utilizes on campus as well as the network requirements of these devices became higher than what the current access points could sustain. Therefore, it was necessary to increase not only the number of access points available per residence hall, but the technology itself as well. Network signal is often weakened as it passes through solid surfaces, such as doors and walls. Therefore, by placing access points directly within students’ rooms, internet connection and speed increased.
Access Point:A device that allows other Wi-Fi devices to connect to a wired network.
However, access points aren’t the only thing necessary to increase network speed and connectivity. The physical structure of the network is this: cables laid within the ground span to network switches, which then propagate the signal through cables that span to the access points. So, to increase the overall speed and connectivity, all of these components needed to be upgraded.
Network Switch:A device that receives incoming packets of information from the network and determines where each packet should be sent. It is responsible for joining various network devices together and sending data to the correct place.
Let’s start from the beginning. As technology has improved over recent years, fiberoptic cables have become a suitable option for providing significantly higher speeds and signal than traditional cables. These fiberoptic cables must be physically laid into the ground, where they travel to a network switch. At the network switch, which is a device that connects other devices within a network and then forwards data to and from those devices, there are cables that will then be run to the access points. To keep the speed of signal propagation consistent, and therefore faster, the network switches must be upgraded to match the speed of the signal provided by the fiberoptic cables. Finally, the cables stemming from the network switch and access points must also be upgraded to the propagate signal at a higher rate as well.
Fiberoptic Cable:A type of network cable that carries light signals through strands of glass or plastic and can transmit data at a higher speed over long distances than traditional cables.
While these multi-dimensional upgrades are already complicated, there are other barriers that hinder the process of network upgrades as well. UNC is known for its beautiful historical campus, and while the diversity of building materials and structures make the campus unique and special, these differences lead to challenges in the upgrade process. Many residence halls were built in different time periods, some even over 200 years ago, that utilized a diverse array of building materials and construction methods. Therefore, multiple different “plans of attack” had to be created to find workable solutions to providing quality and equitable upgrades across campus.
Offline Building:A residence hall that is temporarily closed for maintenance and is not available for student residents.
Additionally, as described above, this comprehensive project is huge and requires a lot of time and labor. With increasing costs, inflation, and budgetary restrictions, comprehensive upgrades must often be completed in a multi-year timespan. To maintain affordable on-campus living costs, much consideration is given to these projects in order to find the best solution all around. Finally, time, the ever-scarce resource is essential to creating meaningful solutions and upgrades. Much of the upgrade plan requires physical construction in the residence halls, which cannot be done while students are currently staying. Therefore, these projects must take place while a building is “offline”, or unused by students, typically during the summers, when not all residence halls are being utilized. There are also many projects that must occur within the residence halls, such as routine maintenance, renovations, and fixing other appliances. However, despite the challenges presented, the team at ResNet and Carolina Housing are committed to providing upgraded speeds and connectivity to UNC students.
Contact ResNet for support at (919)-962-HELP.