Demands on MWireless result in Wi-Fi upgrades

By Maya Kalman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 2, 2014

This past weekend marked a significant milestone in the ongoing Campus Wi-Fi Upgrade Project. As of Saturday at 3 p.m., Wi-Fi access points in the Michigan Union were transferred over to an updated system in order to improve the experience of those using wireless networks on campus. Wi-Fi access will ultimately receive updates in 19 University buildings.

In recent years, students, faculty and staff have experienced slow Internet connections while using MWireless, the primary wireless network on campus, due to both increased traffic on the networks and increased usage of technologies that take up a large amount of the Wi-Fi bandwidth.

Wi-Fi, which uses unlicensed spectrum, can be used by anyone with an enabled device, causing high traffic volumes in the small bits of bandwidth allocated to Wi-Fi. Andrew Palms, executive director of the University’s Communications Systems and Data Centers, compared heavy traffic to having multiple people talk at once.

“From a technical perspective, that’s like four of us all talking at the same time,” Palms said. “All of a sudden it doesn’t work and you can’t understand anyone because we’re all talking at once. If you take all four of us and you separate us out 100 feet and then we start talking, somebody could understand each of us individually. That’s a lot like what unlicensed spectrum is. If you have a lot of folks who are implementing Wi-Fi and they’re all implementing it and talking at the same time, it creates a bad situation.”

The core problem is that Wi-Fi can only run on three small bits of spectrum, which are now becoming overcrowded.

“It’s like oceanfront property,” Palms said. “There’s only so much of it.”

The increased use of wireless devices on campus over a short period of time is a major driver of the problem. From January 2012 to January 2013, the number of devices connecting to MWireless has nearly doubled, according to Patricia Giorgio, marketing communication specialist senior at the University’s Information and Technology Services. As a result, ITS has struggled to stay in front of that growth.

“The wireless was fine and suitable for the amount of devices students, faculty and staff were bringing on campus at the time it was built. But the problem is, we’ve all become more of a digital population,” Giorgio said. “The more people that try to connect to an access point, the slower the traffic will move and the performance of the wireless becomes degraded.”

This problem extends past the University to large institutions across the country.

The problem has been exacerbated by interruptions to the network by other Wi-Fi networks on campus. The use of personal hotspots and wireless printers that broadcast their own signals interferes heavily with the MWireless enterprise network. This effect explains why the University requests that students not set up their own access points in their dorms.

Another contributor to the problem is the change in how devices are used. Specifically, the increase in video streaming has been a huge driver of the challenges.

“The biggest bandwidth hog, so to speak, is streaming video,” Giorgio said. “And, as you know, students, faculty and staff are all doing a lot more with streaming video. So it’s not only the number of devices, but it’s the type of devices.”

Finally, the problems are greatest in buildings with older wiring and electronics, which further slow the network.

In the face of these problems, which were identified by students, University Provost Martha Pollack and ITS have developed the Campus Wi-Fi Update Project. The project, which began last year, aims to increase the quality of the wireless network on campus by both increasing the number of access points in buildings and by raising the spectrum at which the network runs.

The priority placed on this project was raised dramatically directly in response to student requests, Palms said. And other faculty members agreed.

“I hear from students it’s water, food and Wi-Fi — that’s what they want, maybe not even in that order,” said Susan Pile, director of the Michigan Union and the Center for Campus Involvement. “I think Wi-Fi enables students to, certainly, have an enhanced academic experience, but from a student life perspective, it’s really part of your Michigan experience.”

Using the wireless network has not been a seamless activity previously. The goal of the project was to improve the experience in heavily used campus common spaces, Pile said.

The first phase of the project, which took place last year, involved upgrading libraries. Due to the high wireless usage by students in these buildings, the University decided to upgrade them first, costing approximately $1.2 million.

The current phase of the project, which will be completed by summer 2015, began in the Michigan Union, the Michigan League and Pierpont Commons, worth approximately $3.6 million.

“I think that this will speak volumes to students in terms of the University making a move of this nature to enhance their experience, so it’s great. We’re excited,” said Pierpont Commons Director Michael Swanigan.

The first part, increasing the number of access points, involves installing more devices that amplify the wireless signal, much like wireless routers. These devices have now been installed in more places than ever before, increasing the number of rooms in which Wi-Fi is available in all included buildings. In addition, all of the existing access points have been replaced with upgraded devices.

The number of access points added to each room is determined by the number of people who typically use that room and the type of technology being used in the space. For example, large lecture halls require more access points to allow for wireless use by many students simultaneously.

The number of access points in the Union was increased from about 40 to about 200. The number in the League was increased from 35 to 52. In Pierpont Commons, the number of access points was increased from 30 to 75. These access points now cover office spaces that were not previously covered.

The University is also increasing the access points’ frequency from 2.4 GHz to 5 GHz. The hope is that this will reduce crowding on the networks, thus increasing the quality of the wireless network.

As of the transition Nov. 1, all upgraded buildings feature more access points, all of which run on the higher frequency. So far, the changes have been very effective, Giorgio said.

Looking forward, the aim is to stay in front of the need and have a consistent wireless experience on campus, Giorgio said. Nevertheless, she conceded that this process is never truly complete.

“We’re never really going to be done,” she said. “The IT team is going to put these buildings on a renewal cycle that says, ‘We’re going to have to go in and renew wireless this often.’ So they might say every six years we’re going to have to go back and redo this building based on new usage and new trends in technology.”

Palms said the plan will create a funding model for future initiatives.

“That’s not all in place yet, but I would expect the next revision to be about five years from now,” she said.

Representatives from ITS and from University Unions are optimistic that the changes will particularly enhance the student experience across campus.

“I think we’re just very excited that, truly, the Union is the center of student life and we think that this is a great way to enhance that experience and provide students with a way to connect even more,” Pile said. “That’s what the Union is all about, it’s connecting people and now they’ll be able to do it even better with Wi-Fi technology.”

In the future, ITS hopes to bring these upgrades to all campus buildings, starting with the rest of the academic and research buildings and continuing to University housing. Proposals have been submitted to the University for the upgrade of 171 academic buildings on the Ann Arbor campus, but they have not yet been approved.

Correction appended: A previous article misstated the number access points that have been updated. The Michigan Union received updates over the weekend, but updates at a total of 19 buildings will be ongoing.