Information Technology Department addresses wireless outages: Chief of Technology explains bandwidth and other network issues

Posted by Andy Shi


At 2:55 p.m. on Nov. 7 students received an email from the Information Technology Department describing a temporary Wi-Fi outage that occurred in the academic and administrative buildings.

Monday's outage is the latest in a wave of Wi-Fi problems this semester, and students have experienced problems with connecting to the provided networks. Unbeknownst to most students, however, is that the College employs two separate data networks to provide wireless to the campus.

Aruba Networks is responsible for the administrative and academic buildings and Time Warner Cable for the residence halls. It is the latter network that most students consider unstable and to which IT is allocating much of its effort.

"The issues with access from the main campus network to the Internet on Monday resulted from a problem with the DNS (Domain Name System) on campus," said Justin Sipher, the College's chief technology officer. "DNS is the system that translates the words you type into a browser, such as, into numbers that the Internet uses to route to the appropriate servers."

Sipher said IT is speaking with the vendor that supplies the wireless to the administrative and academic buildings, and he assures students that matters are stabilized.

Sipher described multiple issues with the network that IT is addressing, such as the increased use of wireless, new Internet patterns that clog up the bandwidth and the use of personal Wi-Fi systems. Sipher compared bandwidth to lanes on a highway. The more lanes, the faster the traffic, and, in the case of the Internet, the better and faster the wireless connection.

Sipher said the wireless network in the residence halls is a relatively new addition, conceived of two years ago and spearheaded by Mark Bauer, assistant director and network administrator. IT partnered up with Time Warner Cable for this project, a company IT had previously hired as a vendor for residence hall cable and landline services.

Since then IT has installed an expansive wireless system around campus consisting of about 100 access points that Sipher compares to signal towers for cell phones.

Sipher said that one of the major issues with the wireless system was the unforeseen proliferation in use of wireless. "The original design of the wireless system in the residence halls was to provide supplemental coverage to the wired network in your rooms," said Sipher, adding that because wireless has become a primary medium for connection to the Internet and due to advances in technology, the bandwidth of the access points become strained.

Bill Duffy, director of IT strategic planning and communication, points to the increased usage of online video and movie streaming through websites such as Netflix and YouTube for increasing the needed bandwidth.

A second issue that relates to the increased usage patterns is the increasing quantity of WiFi-connected devices, particularly smartphones and tablets. Sipher recalls several students he has polled admitted to having four or five devices connected at a time.

Unreliable wireless can further be attributed to students setting up their own wireless routers in their dorms. In a cause and effect scenario, students who have decided the College's wireless is unreliable set up their own wireless systems, which then further weakens its wireless bandwidth.

Sipher said although a personal wireless router will assure great connection for that one person, it disturbs the College's connection with other students. He said IT is researching innovative methods for improving the connection, and, for now, is augmenting the amount of access points around campus.

He advises students to seek out the IT department, located on the first floor of Harder Hall, for personal assistance, as he says many times students just rebuke the wireless because of its poor reputation, when sometimes there is an easy and reliable solution to connecting the Wi-Fi to the student's device.

"Still, the Internet is a moving target," Duffy said. With the Internet constantly changing and technology always advancing, the campus's wireless system will never be perfect.

For a better connection, Sipher recommends to use a landline whenever possible, as it frees up the Wi-Fi bandwidth for other users. As for the wireless system, Sipher said IT is optimistic that the system will constantly be improving for the students. 

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