Can colleges respond to bandwidth demand without drawing student ire?

Six in 10 colleges don't monitor individual bandwidth consumption.

Grappling with students’ insatiable appetite for bandwidth, college technology officials on one in five campuses have instituted strict limitations on how many laptops, smart phones, and tablets a student can connect to the school network.

That finding, along with a host of other approaches to maintaining secure, powerful web connections across campus, were published by the Association for Information Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA), which on March 22 released its first “State of the ResNet Report.”

ResNet is short for residential network, or the internet connection provided to campus dormitories and, usually, a range of school buildings.

Colleges and universities have reported over the past year that students now arrive on campus with three or four web-capable devices, and many of those gadgets – iPads, game consoles, and laptops – are used to stream movies and TV shows on various sites like Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu.

Nine in 10 IT decision makers who responded to the ACUTA survey of 249 U.S. campuses said tablets were likely to consume the most bandwidth in coming years. This has prompted 19 percent of schools in the ACUTA survey to impose restrictions on the number of mobile devices a single student can connect to the campus’s network.

“There is an expectation right now among students of, ‘Any device, any time, as much as we want,’” said Joe Harrington, ACUTA president and director of network services at Boston College (BC). “This has [IT officials] back on their heels a little bit, looking for ways to deal with this proactively rather than reactively.”

Twenty-seven percent of colleges and universities have bandwidth quotas, tracking the amount used by every student on campus – a practice that has sparked protests from college students who have fought fees imposed for exceeding individual bandwidth caps.

Still, six in 10 campuses don’t track individual bandwidth consumption at all.

Catering to student and faculty bandwidth needs, Harrington said, will be a top IT concern for many years.

“It’s been a hockey stick curve,” Harrington said, describing a graph that shows sudden and exponential growth in bandwidth usage. “I keep expecting to see it level off, but it just keeps going up and up.”

Sixty-eight percent of campuses allow unlimited connectivity to the school’s network, while half pay for bandwidth supplied to students who use the residential network, but don’t recover the cost.

And as college officials have lamented historic cuts to higher education funding this year, only 20 percent of schools’ IT budgets are used to manage the campus residential network, according to the ACUTA research.

College students might expect anytime, anywhere access to a high-speed internet connection, but most have become accustomed to limited IT support. One in 10 colleges surveyed by ACUTA provide 24-hour support for students with computer problems.

Most students, however, come to school with more than a basic understanding of how to connect their various mobile devices to the residential network, said Corrine Hoch, ACUTA’s executive director.

“The students are much more savvy and self reliant today,” she said. ”They interestingly don’t need as much support as they once did.”

The ACUTA survey showed that college IT helpdesks, for the most part, have fallen behind students’ penchant for online chats and text messages.

Eleven percent of respondents said their school answers IT questions via text message, and two in 10 schools have a live chat system, with technology staffers ready to answer student questions. Call center and eMail support are the most common methods for IT support, according to the survey.

The University of South Florida is among a handful of campuses that have launched IT helpdesk Facebook pages. Students visit the page, post a question to the wall, and wait for a staffer’s response.

Hoch said expanding IT helpdesks with Facebook and Twitter pages could be a long way from becoming commonplace in higher education.

“People are watching [social media] in order to keep a pulse on what’s happening in the student community,” Hoch said. “It’s only in its infancy as far as colleges and universities are concerned, so we’ll see where it goes from here.”

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