College students shouldn’t have to stress over Wi-Fi



Neil MacDonald

     It is 11:52 p.m. when you realize that you never submitted that paper due at midnight. You whip out your laptop, fire it up and open Blackboard. Just when you think you’re in the clear, VUMobile goes down. A “The page cannot be displayed” message makes your heart race, and you nearly break the refresh button. It comes back on with one minute to spare, but was all that drama really necessary? 

      It is no secret that we all rely on the Internet, but sometimes our campus Wi-Fi is less than reliable. Nothing is more frustrating than being booted offline for no reason or suffering through endless buffering on Netflix. Plugging into an Ethernet port alleviates many of these issues, but do we really need to be tethered to the wall in 2015? Shouldn’t we be able to bring our own wireless routers to school so we don’t all have to cram onto VUMobile? The answer is actually much more complicated. VUMobile isn’t perfect, but a campus full of rogue private routers might actually be worse. UNIT needs to take action to fully upgrade VUMobile and set concrete speed goals, or somehow institute a system for managing private wireless access points. 

     Before examining solutions, it is important to understand fully why network hiccups occur on campus. It all comes down to bandwidth—the capacity of the network to carry data. When many computers try to use the same access point, or router, traffic gets bogged down much like a traffic jam during rush hour. On a campus crawling with Wi-Fi enabled devices, it is all too easy for the infrastructure to be overwhelmed, especially in residential buildings. If you have a private Wi-Fi network at home, you are only making your equipment serve a handful of devices, but in a dorm, where everyone has at least a phone and laptop, the network quickly clogs.

     You might think that a good way to alleviate the crowding is to bring your own router and project a network for you and your roommates that connects to the port in your room. However, UNIT bans private routers on campus. Your only options are VUMobile or directly wiring your laptop to the wall. John Center, Director of UNIT’s Network and Communication Services Division, explains why private routers are banned. “Because of the nature of wireless networking, private wireless routers would create substantial interference with the University’s network and with each other,” he said in an email. “This has happened in the past and would happen again if this were allowed.” Additionally, UNIT cites security concerns related to so-called “rogue” routers on campus. “From a security perspective, private routers are another device on the campus network vulnerable to attack,” Center added. “We have had people spoof our SSIDs, such as VUMobile, so that one can’t tell whether they are on the University’s network or not.”

     Despite the risks associated with private routers, the fact remains that VUMobile is horrendously inconsistent and unreliable in many parts of campus. A connection speed test in Rudolph Hall showed VUMobile at a measly three megabytes per second. The national average, at the most conservative estimates, is around 25 Mbps. However, on other parts of campus, the network seems very healthy. In Falvey, another test by the same service showed a robust 35 Mbps. (Attempting to run the test from The Villanovan’s office in Dougherty Hall resulted in a “page cannot be displayed” message.) This lack of reliability is incredibly frustrating and stems from an upgrade initiative that is only partially complete. “We are transitioning from this to higher capacity wireless networking (IEEE 802.11ac), which will provide much more bandwidth than most of our wired connections,” Mr. Center said. 

     Other universities’ networks outperform ours. At Georgetown University, in an area of campus that is “notoriously slow” according to one Hoya, the speed clocked in at 14 Mbps, well above the Rudolph test. Saint Joseph’s University came in at 22 Mbps, and the University of Scranton provides a 27 Mbps speed. These are much more in line with national averages. Surprisingly, there are no concrete speed goals for VUMobile. Center did note that “[UNIT]’s focus is to provide greater wireless bandwidth to all areas of campus.” This involves rewiring and relocating the routers that provide VUMobile. Center cites recent work done in the Quad as an example. However, some Quad residents maintain that the network is still slow and spotty. 

     If VUMobile wants to remain the only network on campus, UNIT needs to set specific goals for speed and coverage to bring wireless connectivity up to at least the national average in all areas of campus. If it does not, it is unfair to prohibit students from bringing private routers. A system could be created to license and maintain private routers if needed, and a limited number of router “permits” could be issued to avoid interference in crowded residence halls. Otherwise, every University router must be able to handle the traffic that the average college student needs to function in a modern University environment.       

     The current infrastructure clearly fails to serve the needs of a fast-paced University with a booming student population. Our network is one of our campus’s most critical assets, and it’s time it was treated like one. As the University looks towards the future with expansion projects, it must remember that a stronger network should be at the top of its priorities.