Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, has more than 2,400 students, and they require — and expect — a lot of network support. Gone are the days when students showed up on campus with just a PC to plug into the campus backbone. Today, the typical student might have multiple devices, most operating wirelessly and at all hours. In addition, they are watching TV, streaming video and using phones and other types of technology that operate across the college campus residential network. This network typically provides Internet connectivity for students living in residence halls, along with cable TV/video services, phone services and support.

To manage the increasing demands, Hardin-Simmons has turned to outsourcing. Apogee, which provides residential networks (ResNet) to college campuses around the country, manages all of the college’s residential network services and makes sure that students have the access points and bandwidth that they need.  

Hardin-Simmons’ situation is typical of what’s happening at colleges and universities, where 83 percent of campuses now provide a wireless connection, almost double from 45 percent in 2013, according to a 2016 study of ResNets by the Association for College and University Technology Advancement (ACUTA) and Association of Colleges and University Housing Officers-International (ACUHO-I). 

That kind of rapid development has put a strain on resources. One fast-growing option is to outsource. Currently 44 percent of schools are outsourcing or considering outsourcing, double the number from 2013, according to the State of ResNet Report.

Travis Seekins, the Hardin-Simmons associate vice president for technology services, notes that the decision to outsource was easy when they looked at what was at stake. “We can’t afford to not do this well. This is a key component in the world today in the lives of our students,” Seekins said. “We don’t have the personnel to handle all the students we have.” 

A Doubling in Bandwidth Speed

In today’s high-tech, real-time world, colleges have to respond quickly to increasing demands for greater bandwidth. Nearly two-thirds of universities provide bandwidth of up to 1 gigabit per second to the ResNet, up from 500 Mbps in 2012. The study also found that 83 percent of campuses provide a strong wireless connection, a figure that’s nearly doubled in the past four years. Yet the need for bandwidth and superior Wi-Fi connections continues to rise to keep pace with the range of devices students use. 

Along with this increased demand, universities face a challenge to provide enough technical support for resident students. The ResNet study reported that only 13.6 percent of schools provide constant support, and the only resource available to students at more than three-quarters of schools is access to online resources, like a FAQ page. Most universities continue to offer onsite or call centers for support, and a growing number are incorporating support via live chat and social media. 

Another key challenge is security, where many universities and colleges have gaps. In fact, the report shows that a fifth of colleges don’t have an information security and internal audit team, even though they say security is a high priority. Half of colleges have a security team of four or fewer staff, while a fifth of institutions have a team of five to nine staff members.

Funding the growing ResNet demand remains a huge challenge as well for most colleges and universities. An increasing number of colleges expect wireless costs to continue to increase, with half of institutions reporting a 5 percent or more expected rise in cost within the next two years. While 47 percent of institutions reported an increase in ResNet funding, that number is down 7 percent from last year. The annual ResNet budgets closely align with the size of the institution. About 44 percent of colleges and universities have an annual network budget of less than $750,000; one-third have a budget between $750,000 and $2.5 million, and 22.5 percent spend more than $2.5 million, according to the report.

Funding models differ depending on the size of the institution, with nearly 42 percent reporting that the money comes from central university funds because of its status as a core university service. Some universities levy a technology fee to cover the growing costs of ResNet services.  

To stay ahead of the curve when it comes to providing ResNet services students want and need, college strategic plans have become critical to operational success. Over the past three years, the number of institutions that have a ResNet strategic plan has increased 24 percent. But even with plans in place, findings show they aren’t often updated, and transparency is limited. In fact, 56 percent of housing and business officers reported that they do not have access to benchmarking information. What’s more, nearly a quarter of business officers and 22 percent of housing officers reported they don’t meet with their IT departments at all. 

To Outsource or Not

The rapid increase in mobile devices and the bandwidth-hungry apps that go with them has put a strain on the management of infrastructure, technology and the related costs, according to the ResNet report. The result has been an increasing appetite for outsourcing. As noted before, the number of institutions outsourcing or considering outsourcing their ResNet services has doubled in three years.

Georgetown University recently finalized a partnership with Verizon Communications to overhaul its entire wireless infrastructure over the course of five years. Judd Nicholson, vice president of information services and chief information officer at Georgetown, explained that this partnership will allow the university to not only update existing infrastructure from building to building throughout the campus, but will also provide added support to keep technical capabilities on the cutting edge. The second phase of the initiative involves connecting network devices to Verizon’s network operations center, which monitors and maintains the equipment around the clock. “This will enable us to keep internal network engineers focused on optimizing performance, research networking, and network cloud migration initiatives,” Nicholson said. 

While outsourcing proves to work for larger campuses, smaller campuses with less demand are finding solutions internally. For example, two of the largest regional campuses at Indiana University house roughly 400 students in residence halls at each location. To keep up with wireless demand on one campus, the university provides students access to two separate secure wireless networks — one for academic work and another for gaming, streaming and other extracurricular activities. The other regional campus is simply equipped with hospitality access points within each residential unit because the demand for wireless is even smaller. 

According to Elizabeth Van Gordon, who works in the Office of the Vice President for IT and CIO for Indiana University, all regional campuses operate under a 10-year life cycle replacement model, which helps the university stay ahead of the technology curve by at least three to five years. Those costs are accounted for through auxiliary services in residence halls and technology fees on main campuses. 

Regardless of university location or size, student behavior indicates that the demand for efficient, accessible wireless services will only continue to increase. “I would speculate that demand will only become greater, especially as wearable technology begins to appear,” Van Gordon said. Students, teachers and staff often come to campus with multiple devices, sometimes up to four at once. With that in mind, there’s no doubt this will continue to be a critical issue within higher education. Or as Van Gordon puts it, “it’s not over yet.” 

A version of this story originally appeared in the Converge spring 2017 magazine issue.