A wi-fi symbol made up of people to signify the ubiquitousness of wi-fi on campus

The answer to better campus wi-fi: Artificial intelligence

Machine learning helps pinpoint network problems before they become problems

Once a futuristic concept, artificial intelligence (AI) is starting to make its mark in the world, whether it’s helping diagnose diseases, automate manufacturing, personalize retail interactions, or assist a smartphone user in navigating city traffic.

At Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, we’re harnessing AI for what has become a very important priority for us and all universities: providing better campus wi-fi.

The ubiquitousness of campus wi-fi

It’s a fact of life for higher-ed institutions today that outstanding digital service has become a crucial vector for the overall quality of life on campus, intertwined with the learning experience and student satisfaction.

Ninety percent of Dartmouth’s 4,500 undergrads live on the Hanover campus. This is their home, wi-fi is by far their primary internet access method, and they expect it to work seamlessly—in the classroom, the dorm, wherever they may be—whether it’s to email a paper due the next day or stream Stranger Things on Netflix.

Our faculty also expects the wireless to perform at the level they are accustomed to from a wired network as they increasingly adopt online techniques in the lecture hall, from online exams to visual content accessed via Apple TV to even smart speakers and digital voice assistants like Amazon Alexa.

Furthermore, Dartmouth envisions a highly automated campus of the future where AI combined with the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) capabilities in smartphones can interact with wireless beacons to, say, give turn-by-turn directions inside campus buildings, issue notifications about a special promotion at the bookstore, or guide museum tours. Such applications will only keep raising the stakes for wireless network quality.

Improving the campus wi-fi experience

However, Dartmouth, like so many other universities, was saddled with an aging wireless infrastructure that practically guaranteed a lousy wi-fi experience.

Related: 9 critical steps to wi-fi innovation

The typical network on college campuses across America is based on an architecture designed more than a decade ago, before the advent of ubiquitous wireless devices, social media, and streaming services that have drastically increased what users ask of and expect from WLANs.

In an era when the promise of technology is so often defined by the word “smart,” these obsolete networks are dumb. They’re unable to provide visibility into the service levels that users are experiencing and they force administrators into the slow, painful task of manually sifting through a plethora of computer-generated logs scattered across the IT stack to determine where and why a problem occurred before they can fix it.

A variety of vendor tools has become available through the years to try to attack the problem, but they tend to be hard to use, require a great deal of special knowledge (way beyond the skills of a typical Help Desk staffer), and, in the end, still take too much time and effort to pinpoint the root cause of wireless issues. As a network engineer, I want us to be able to know instantly that it took eight seconds for the user to connect because the DHCP server had a problem, without jumping through four intermediate systems and a central log collector to try to figure it all out.

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