Thursday, September 17, 2015

Designing for an excellent student experience

Today’s students arrive at college with an average of more than six devices requiring a high-speed Internet connection. These devices include smart phones, tablets, notebooks, e-readers, gaming consoles, smart TVs, FitBits, and VoIP phones. Moreover, industry observers foresee 10-15 devices per student becoming a reality in the not-so-distant future. 
At the same time, content providers continue to innovate.
A few years ago, Netflix started streaming HD content, and the popularity of its video streaming service surged. In student housing, more than 50% of residents started streaming this HD video feed. According to Netflix, in one three-month period, the average speed for its streams on Comcast's network increased 50%%, from 2.5 Mbps to 4+ Mbps.
Today, to prevent buffering – i.e. choppy or interrupted viewing -- residents now need at least 20 Mbps of bandwidth just to stream a single Netflix 4K show. By 2017, Netflix and other content providers plan to offer 8K video streams, which will require 50 or more Mbps.
More users, along with the explosion of video-centric devices and apps such as Roku, Apple TV, KindleFire,  and Chromecast, paired with more advanced video content, such as Netflix 4K, Hulu+, and Amazon Prime have increased the demand for data capacity at today’s student housing communities.
According to survey data released at both the 7th Annual InterFace Student Housing Conference and the 2015 Annual Broadband Communities Summit, Internet connectivity continues to top pools, patios, clubhouses--and in some cases, location -- in terms of the most important amenities students look for. But with ever-increasing demands for Internet bandwidth and reliability at many properties, providing this single amenity isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it proposition.
This article shares, in non-technical terms, InfiniSys’ views on how to meet this increased demand and keep residents happy at a student housing community.
 To increase the flow, you need bigger pipes.
Using the analogy of a water system helps illustrate InfiniSys’ philosophy toward engineering a robust Internet infrastructure in student housing. Have you ever been scalded in the shower when someone flushes the toilet? This typically happens in water systems with pipes or pumps that are too small.
A well-designed water system has large pipes and pumps, and enough electricity to enable water to flow easily. The system pulls water from a large source, such as a reservoir, and feeds into a network of smaller pipes, which eventually end at the house or apartment unit. Sometime these systems will include local storage such as a water tower to meet peak demands.[JH1] 

So, how does this relate to high-speed Internet at the property?
Being scalded in the shower when someone flushes the toilet is akin to numerous residents trying to use the same Internet connection with too little bandwidth, substandard infrastructure, inadequate electronics, or all of the above.    
Take the example of one student resident Skyping with his parents, another streaming House of Cards on Netflix, a third taking an online exam and yet a forth booking his airline ticket home.  Now, multiply this by all residents in the student housing community: the Skype call sounds garbled, House of Cards freezes up, the test-taker fails his exam because he can’t submit it on time and the would-be traveler gets a message that his request is “processing” but never gets a confirmation message. He’s left wondering if he needs to resubmit his information, and risk having his credit card charged twice.
Just as a water system needs properly-sized pumps and pipes, as well as enough electricity to power them and water towers for peak use, student housing communities need a well-engineered and robust physical infrastructure to provide high-speed Internet. 
This includes a large fiber backbone (pipes), electronics (pumps), bandwidth, (electricity) and a cache (equivalent to a water tower).  These components enable content, such as video, voice, games, e-mail, and web pages (the “water” in this system) to traverse the network.
Start with your fiber backbone
The most critical element of a system’s infrastructure is its fiber backbone and subsequent copper data cabling. 
InfiniSys has been designing its NetworkedApartment™ systems to meet industry commercial standards for the last 25 years. Our fiber backbone is rated to more than 100 Gbps per strand, with copper data cabling that’s rated to more than 1 Gbps.
Electronics are then tacked onto the pipe and may include routers, caches, Internet switches, and wireless access points.
What’s inside the apartment
Using our SmartApartment™ design, we install robust infrastructure to outlast existing and projected standards and provide enough bandwidth to satisfy connectivity needs. Currently, that translates into the delivery of a minimum of 1 Gbps to each data jack.
Once the correctly sized fiber and electronics are in place, owners can offer residents bandwidth speeds of more than 10-50 times greater than what students have received from older traditional cable modem and DSL services.  All in-unit switch ports have 1 Gbps ratings, and all backbone switches have either 1 or 10 Gbps ratings, depending on the location within the system. All high-bandwidth locations, such as smart TV and gaming console outlets, have dedicated 1 Gbps switch ports.
Caching in on your residents’ Internet experience
Behind the scenes, a caching server may be employed to mitigate heavy repetitive video sources such as Netflix.  By definition, a caching server stores content locally, similar to a water tower keeping water on hand close by.  It provides for reserve or boost capacity during periods of high video traffic downloads. Incorporating a caching server, which can be located at the property or at the service provider’s facility, is especially effective when incorporated as part of a managed Ethernet system.
Managing your Wi-Fi network
The type of Wi-Fi access points you use, and how you use them, affect your residents’ experience.  Each Wi-Fi access point operates at a given frequency standard, and needs a certain level of traffic management. Typically, the access points included within a cable-modem or DSL-modem are of the retail variety and are not designed to handle multiple simultaneous users. 
More robust access points employ a multi-radio, multi-frequency or multichannel streaming model.  A satisfactory multi-user experience depends on the number of users, the number of devices each user has, and the location of the access point.
What about the 802.11ac standard?
The 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard is here. For example, the Apple MacBook Air, IPhone 6 both of which  are quite popular among students, already has 802.11ac Wi-Fi capability, in addition to 802.11n capability, as do many new digital cameras. To satisfy the desire to be able to market a property as having the latest, most up-to-date technology amenities, we recommend using 802.11ac+n band 2x2 minimum wireless access points.  For unit access points the ratio should be 1 AP for every 4-6 students.Gauging the resident experience
Resident satisfaction should not be based on speed tests run over a browser – such as OOKLA, for example – but rather on their experience of audio and video content.  Determining performance over a Wi-Fi network becomes even more challenging when using other wireless enabled devices such as iPhones, because the device itself can become a limiting factor in the results.
InfiniSys professionally tests and stresses our Internet backbones to determine how fast the website loads, whether Netflix constantly buffers, or if the game freezes up at a critical moment.
A word about cable and DSL modems
Where necessary, InfiniSys can incorporate cable-modems and DSL-modems into this infrastructure. But property owners should note that an Internet delivery system that uses older cable-modems or DSL-modems is similar to a poorly designed and unmanaged water system.  In the future with the release of the DOCS 3.1 standard and other advanced technologies cable-modems again may be a viable alternative for providing high capacity bandwidth.  The systems however will need to be of current generation cabling, IE RG-6 meeting the required distance limitationsWhen used in a student housing property, such technologies often provide for a less-than-satisfactory user experience.  Students typically report a significant degradation in system responsiveness when more than 60-75% of residents try to use the system simultaneously. A typical student network has 95% or higher utilization during peak evening hours. 
While cable companies may advertise cable-modems with very high downstream bandwidth, they typically have limited upstream capability and do not manage multiple users effectively, again this will be somewhat solved with the DOCSIS 3.1 technology.  Students then experience the issues described above: losing connectivity, getting garbled audio or frozen video, or not being able to finalize a transaction online.
Using the water system analogy again thinks of an entire neighborhood irrigating its lawns at the same time -- just a small stream would emerge from each sprinkler or shrub head.  In most cases, the municipality gives each house certain days to use water to reduce the system’s overall water usage and increase the individual experience. 
But imagine telling student residents that they can only use the Internet during certain hours and on certain days! Modems simply do not offer the requisite capacity to satisfy the user experience today’s students demand.
So what does InfiniSys recommend?
How much bandwidth do property owners need to provide their residents with a great user experience?  Assuming a proper NetworkedApartment™ infrastructure with current electronics and a sufficient number of managed access points in place, InfiniSys recommends that property owners provide enough reserve “pumping capacity” to afford a consistent and acceptable user experience at all times.
Below is a chart with our bandwidth recommendations based on anticipated demand:
75MB -100MB Per 100 students depending on the type of school the property is near. For example, engineering students and schools that offer many video and online classes require far more bandwidth than those that do not. 
May increase to 200 MB Per 100 students

We should emphasize that the bandwidth recommended above works only when it is part of a well-managed network operating on a robust infrastructure.  Each element functions as part of a system to provide an excellent user experience.  We could have the best water system infrastructure in a town; however if the pumps are not managed correctly, we might still have the scalding shower experience.
In addition, the user experience depends on choosing a technology service provider who can effectively and proactively manage the network from the property to the end user.  The service provider must offer a pro-active customer support system to ensure a satisfactory student resident experience, with alternative means of resident outreach such as “texting” or “chatting,” and not just a telephone help desk.  This includes employing regular surveys and focus groups to validate the service offerings.
Connecting it all together for fast, reliable and robust connectivity
Just as a poorly-designed water system won’t work well without adding more pumps or increasing the amount of electricity powering it, so too is the case with Internet connectivity.  If a property doesn’t have scalable fiber and electronics, residents will get kicked offline, not hear the person they’re talking to on the phone, or fail their exam for not being able to hit the submit button.  Students invest in the latest technologies and fully expect their devices to work where they live.
InfiniSys advises its customers to use well-engineered, robust technologies that can withstand changes and upgrades using proven, standards-based designs.  InfiniSys is available to counsel owners, developers and property management companies on Internet and other technology based amenities, which have become the deciding factors for students choosing a property today.
Prepared by the Team at InfiniSys, Inc.
Updated 09_2016

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