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High-speed for higher ed

Colleges and universities leverage buying power to get more bandwidth at lower cost
University Business, August 2015
Campuses are aggregating bandwidth demand to purchase more capacity at lower costs through state networks and other consortia.
Campuses are aggregating bandwidth demand to purchase more capacity at lower costs through state networks and other consortia.

Higher education has a long history of collaboration among institutions. Today, colleges and universities are leveraging the power of that collaborative spirit to bring high-capacity bandwidth to the market’s most insatiable users: traditional college-age students.

That technology hunger is evident in how each student not only has multiple devices but is likely to be using them simultaneously, says Jack Suess, vice president of information technology and chief information officer at the University of Maryland.

For example, a student might have a laptop open to access the learning management system while looking at Facebook on a phone and using a tablet to watch a video. “That puts a lot of pressure on how we manage our IP addresses and our bandwidth,” Suess says.

Campuses are aggregating bandwidth demand to purchase more capacity at lower costs through state networks and other consortia, and to attract internet service providers to lay high-capacity fiber in their region. The cooperative force is essential to meet the high-bandwidth demands of student life.

Top speeds, lowest cost through aggregation

Many institutions join regional networks—operated by the state or other universities—that provide internet service to multiple institutions as well as to local businesses and government. Traffic that flows through the networks’ regional cable is often free or low-cost to the institutions tied in to it until the traffic hits the pipelines of paid providers. At that point, traffic is aggregated so that institutions get high capacity at the lowest price possible.

For example, the University of Maryland belongs to the Maryland Research and Education Network (MDREN), which connects it with 34 other state universities, community colleges, private institutions, school systems, the internet and Internet2.

4 steps to tackling the Wi-Fi challenge

  1. Assess the number and types of devices before selecting a Wi-Fi solution.
  2. Understand the trade-off between price and maintenance time when you select a solution.
  3. Install 1.2 access points per classroom to support high-bandwidth networks.
  4. Watch for the Wi-Fi buyers’ guide being published by Education SuperHighway.

Source: Education SuperHighway

Internet traffic from members of MDREN zips through a high-capacity 10-gigabit fiber infrastructure for less cost than if members negotiated on their own with a private carrier. Membership costs are based on usage of ISP services. Thirty-four schools and institutions belong to the network.

“Aggregating traffic gets you the best possible pricing,” says Seuss. “If you have an individual contract with an ISP, there’s a steep cost curve to go from 1 gig to 10 gigs. And one gigabit isn’t large enough to meet demand anymore.”

The University of New Mexico recently amped up bandwidth to 100 gigabits on the nonprofit Albuquerque GigaPoP that it owns and operates. Other institutions in the state plug in to the high-bandwidth network, receiving high-capacity service at a significant discount compared to the commercial internet.

Short for gigabit point of presence, a GigaPoP is a network access point that supports high rates of data transfer. By utilizing the higher-speed interconnections that the GigaPoP and Internet2 offer, participants benefit from reduced usage of their higher-cost commodity internet links.

“My advice is to see if there is an institution in your area that owns a GigaPoP and partner with them for broadband service,” says Mark Reynolds, associate director of information technology at UNM. “You get a better price for in-network traffic and a lower price (through aggregation) when it hits the commodity internet.”

“We are seeing more collaboration among universities and with state networks,” confirms Don Kosec, vice president of major sales at Time Warner. Also, he notes, delivering high bandwidth to students cost effectively is a competitive feature for an institution.

Students not only want high-speed internet access, they want it everywhere. This requires numerous Wi-Fi access points, which in turn increase usage—creating a cycle of demand outstripping supply.

“Everyone is struggling with the wireless challenge,” says Seuss. “When you add more Wi-Fi access, then you multiply the number of people who are watching videos at the same time and that increases your peak demand. You have to look at your network holistically—one change can create an issue somewhere else.”

Getting the most capacity at the best price

  • Check contracts available through state and regional networks and associations.
  • Make sure you are getting the bandwidth you are paying for. Speed test tools are available at www.acceleratevirginia.org/speedtest and www.schoolspeedtest.org.
  • Check with area universities and colleges to see if you can connect to their WAN.
  • Use tools available from providers such as AT&T and Verizon to monitor and then ramp up or decrease size of available bandwidth (and costs) on a given day.
  • Ask providers for their plans for growing bandwidth capacity and enhancing products before signing a contract.
  • Sources: Time Warner, SETDA, AT&T, Verizon

“Instantaneous events” also strain the network, says Seuss. About a year ago, bandwidth at the University of Maryland spiked by about 8 additional gigabits per second within a couple of hours. Why the rush to devices? Apple released its latest operating system that day.

Fiber and Internet2 keep traffic flowing

The most reliable conduit for delivering high bandwidth of a gigabit or more is fiber. Fortunately, providers are laying more of it, thanks in part to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that made one-time grant funds available to deploy broadband infrastructure.

“There’s been a lot of build-out of fiber from the Recovery Act. It’s been a big success story,” says Rob Vietkze, vice president for network services at Internet2. “The only downside is that some states did not apply [for funding] evenly.”

In some areas, institutions partner with each other and local municipalities to convince ISPs to lay fiber in their region. The North Carolina Next Generation Network, for example, is a collection of four universities—Duke, NC State, UNC Chapel Hill and Wake Forest/Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center—and six municipalities. It released a single RFP and attracted AT&T to build and operate a 1 gigabit fiber network, giving institutions and residents the option for broadband speeds 100 times faster than what they had been getting.

And Google has established a University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, known as “Gig.U.” The group of over 30 leading research universities wants to accelerate the deployment of ultra-high-speed networks to leading universities and their communities. Gig.U is one of several collaborative initiatives spearheaded by Google to help bring high-speed networks to more regions.

The availability of more fiber cable and the ability to aggregate traffic and buying power is good news for higher ed. “As long as there is fiber in the area, we’ll keep moving up in speed, and bandwidth prices will continue to come down,” says Kosec.

And when there has been no fiber, colleges and universities have taken matters into their own hands.

“Higher ed doesn’t hesitate to build their own networks or the last-mile link to their connection point. They also purchase dark fiber and light it themselves,” says Kevin Carman, director of education marketing at AT&T, referring to cable that’s already been installed but is not yet in use but may be available for lease from the company that installed it or from a company that manages and markets dark fiber.

Thousands of miles of dark fiber are available in the United States. Dark fiber can be connected directly to the institution’s network wiAlthough progress is being made on high-speed connections in the United States, there’s still a long way to go: Google reports that only 8.8 percent of U.S. connections are fiber, compared to 71 percent in Japan and 66 percent in Korea.

Intra-institution traffic, meanwhile, zips along on Internet2, the autobahn of broadband where speeds of 100 to 200 Gbps are available. And its reach is expanding. The consortia has a new initiative, Internet2 NET+, to vet and provide access via Internet2 to select vendor cloud solutions. Without it, institutions must use their slower internet connections to access these in- demand commercial applications.

“Institutions have a lot of big content providers in common,” says Vietkze of Internet2. More than 300 schools—including Cornell, Indiana, Notre Dame, the University of Southern California and Florida—have signed up for more than 600 subscriptions to the portfolio that includes Amazon Web Services, Box, DocuSign and Blackboard.

University of Maryland users access Blackboard in the cloud now via Internet2. “Putting it on the cloud saves us from installing hardware,” says Seuss. “And having it connected to the Internet2 premium backbone gives us the high quality of service we need.”

Katie Kilfoyle Remis is a freelance writer in upstate New York.

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