Student housing WiFi could buckle with remote fall classes

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Leer en español: El Wifi de las residencias de estudiantes podría fallar durante las clases en línea este otoño

WiFi connections in student housing might slow down with multiple students trying to work from home at once. (Photo illustration by Karina Andrew)

WiFi limitations could be a hindrance for students taking remote classes this Fall Semester.

Electrical and computer engineering professor Philip Lundrigan said with more students trying to complete coursework and attend virtual lectures from their apartments at once, WiFi connections in student housing will likely prove insufficient.

“It’ll be a challenge for sure if you’ve got tons of people connecting at once,” he said.

Lundrigan called apartment complexes the “worst-case scenario” for WiFi, as networks in these locations are often congested under normal circumstances. He compared WiFi to a conversation — no matter how many people are engaged in the conversation, only one person can talk at a time. Similarly, even when there are many access points to a WiFi network, such as when each apartment in a complex has its own router, only one of those access points can receive data at a time.

The network tends to divide “talking time” evenly between access points, Lundrigan said. Each access point might only receive data for a couple of milliseconds at a time, but this is usually enough to receive sufficient data to function until it gets another turn. The real problem begins when multiple people on a network are trying to live stream something, such as a synchronous remote lecture or Zoom meeting, at the same time.

“With this real-time streaming, that’s an issue because there’s nothing to buffer; it’s happening in real time,” he said. “Not only that — it’s time-critical as well. If it has to wait to send you the data, it’s old data at that point and there’s no point in receiving it because it’s maybe five or 10 seconds in the past.”

Some students said they experienced WiFi problems after classes went remote in March. BYU student Elizabeth Daley said even with only one other roommate living with her after classes moved online, her student housing WiFi “cut out and dropped calls regularly.”

UVU student Dane Ericksen lived in BYU-approved housing when the university transitioned to online schooling. “When the pandemic hit, the internet dropped so much in quality, even on a wired connection, I had to use my phone as a mobile hotspot for my then-online classes,” he said.

Ericksen said he had to leave student housing and move back to his parents’ house to have WiFi of a high enough quality to work remotely.

Student Anna Bryner said her connection has only continued to get worse, and she and her roommates are “really nervous for the fall when we have more people living with us.”

Poor WiFi in student housing isn’t a novelty of the pandemic. Former BYU student Isabel Truax Kidd said the WiFi in her student housing was unreliable even before classes were moved online.

“If I had more than one other roommate at home using it, it was hard to Google something or even send iMessages,” she said. “I used more cellular data while living in student housing than anywhere else, and that’s without multiple Zoom calls going on at any given time.”

Off-Campus Housing manager Pat Newman said the Off-Campus Housing Office doesn’t track data on the quality of WiFi in students’ apartments, nor does it “require specific standards concerning internet connectivity.”

“If students encounter internet issues, we encourage students to work with their landlord to resolve the issue,” Newman said.

Lundrigan said students experiencing difficulty with their WiFi during Fall Semester can plug into an Ethernet cable if they have one available, or sit closer to the WiFi access point to strengthen their connection.

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