Campus Internet access encounters complications, frustrated students

At the beginning of this semester, students found the wireless infrastructure — the technology that connects personal devices to the Internet — occasionally unavailable. The reason: A comprehensive series of upgrades meant to improve accessibility to the Internet on campus in the coming years.

“It’s a significant upgrade and a very exciting time for the campus,” said Adam Edelman, interim Chief Information Officer of MSU’s Information Technology Center (ITC). However, such upgrades are not without their hiccups, as students discovered in the first weeks of the term. Often, wireless access points, meant to act as hubs through which one can connect to the Internet, could not handle the traffic flowing through them.

Increased student enrollment is not necessarily to blame for congested networks. Instead, the sheer amount of technology students brought with them caused an unprecedented amount of network traffic, explained Edelman, citing the rising prevalence of laptops, PCs, gaming consoles, smart phones and tablet devices in everyday student life.

The standard workflow in the industry is to first anticipate the needs of network users, then upgrade structures when unpredicted behavior is noted. In addition to the increased usage of personal technology, people at MSU have been connecting to the Internet in places they hadn’t been before, leading to uneven burdens on the network.

“We’re still upgrading the system,” said Edelman, citing the process of perfecting MSU’s network. First, a computer models the floorplans of all campus buildings. Then, ITC personnel place network access points according to anticipated hotspots of usage.

This first stage usually has an optimistic success rate. Then, the system is tweaked according to which access points are inundated, a process that is publicly reflected on the ITC’s Wi-Fi buildout web page. Tweaks to the system are also devised by problem reports collected by the ITC Help Desk.

The Help Desk is where students like Cody Utley have concerns. After experiencing regular problems in the network, Utley posted a complaint on the popular Montana State University Confessions Facebook page.

In the residence halls, according to Utley, students weren’t told about upgrades until they were already underway. Upon contacting the ResNet Help Desk, part of the office that supervises Internet access in residence halls, operators would be unable to advise students, saying, “[Management] doesn’t tell us anything. We’re sorry.”

For Utley, the communication provided by ResNet was unsatisfactory. “ResNet is a service. I don’t feel as though ResNet was serving me as a customer… we didn’t receive an update until a week before [the network] was fixed.” He doesn’t blame any specific administrator, but rather the standard of communication that Help Desk staff are trained in. “They knew what was going on. They just didn’t tell us. It’s a customer service problem — the people at the help desk need to tell you what’s up or send calls to someone who can.”

Although Utley is able to connect to the Internet now, the impact of connectivity problems is still felt. “My grades suffered,” he said, referring to an inability to access Desire2Learn from his hall.

The ITC Help Desk has reported about 250 wireless support cases investigated this term. About half have noted performance issues with wireless connection. ResNet has reported handling three calls related to wireless performance.

Edelman suggested short-term solutions for those still experiencing problems: Computer kiosks in campus buildings, computer labs, and terminals in Renne Library are all hardwired to the network, guaranteeing connectivity. “It’s not an ideal answer,” he admitted, “The bottom line is that we are fixing areas that need fixing as quickly as we can.”

His department is researching methods for communicating outages and network troubles directly and effectively to students, using the signage, sandwich boards and table tents utilized across campus in previous terms as examples. “We’re always looking for ways to improve our service to our number-one constituent, which is the student,” Edelman said, “We welcome any input, any constructive feedback.”

Utley agrees with Edelman’s sentiments. “Fliers in the residence halls [warning about outages] are helpful. When we saw those, they gave us some relief. They just weren’t updated later on.”