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With numerous Wi-Fi service emails appearing in inboxes, students are wondering what’s going on with the Internet. Since the Principia Wi-Fi network is such an important part of daily student life, it is important to clarify just how it impacts students. Is the Wi-Fi the same for everyone? Can Principia track individual Wi-Fi usage?
One rumor circulating the campus is the idea that professors may have access to better Wi-Fi than students do. This general practice is known as bandwidth throttling. Bill Whitney, a member of the Information Technology (IT) department’s network and telecommunications team, stated that Principia does not throttle the Internet, and that “everyone at the College use[s] the same Wi-Fi and Internet pipe.”
Whitney further explained how the Wi-Fi at Principia works. “What we do use is a device called a network equalizer for Internet traffic, wired and wireless,” he said. “Principia College pays for a 250 Mbps Internet pipe, and the NetEqualizer monitors that pipe every eight seconds, looking to see if the total bandwidth usage is over 90 percent — 225 Mbps — for a sustained period. When that limit is reached, it will look for any device — student, faculty or staff — that is using more than 240 Kbps and insert a 1/10-second delay on those packets until the total bandwidth usage falls below 90 percent again.”
He also mentioned that on average, only about 19 of the 900-plus devices go over 240 Kbps and experience the delay. While it is made clear that Principia does not take part in bandwidth throttling, some students still experience slow Wi-Fi and seek an explanation.
Zach Retzlaff, director of IT’s network and telecom team, said that “Everyone hates slow Internet, and I can understand how constant negative experiences with video applications such as Skype or even Principia’s Cisco video teleconferencing equipment might lead our user base to believe that we are providing substandard Internet service, or that our switched and WiFi network infrastructure is inadequate.” Retzlaff used the analogy of an interstate, saying, “Imagine an interstate which allows traffic to travel at 60 miles per hour, but it can only handle 250 cars per second or less (compare to the College circuit). If more than 250 cars per second are trying to access the interstate, everyone gets delayed as cars have to wait their turn to get on.”
However, clear efforts are being made to improve the Wi-Fi for students. Retzlaff said, “My team works hard to ensure we have accurate and up-to-date interactive building maps showing placement of Wi-Fi access points, signal strength and connected devices. This makes it easier to search for weak spots in the Wi-Fi coverage area.” Chris Hufford, IT’s director, added, “We constantly monitor and evaluate what traffic is on the network and strive to locate and remove any bottlenecks that would impede the flow of traffic anywhere on our network.” In addition, improved access points and wireless network controllers have been added. Emails to students regarding these updates are evidence of efforts being made to provide the best Wi-Fi possible within reason. Besides the team dedicated specifically to managing and updating the WiFi, there are some efforts that students can make too.
“To troubleshoot ‘slow’ complaints, we need to know when and where the user was when the slowness occurred. What type of operation — downloading a file, watching Netflix, two-way video, gaming — was happening,” said Hufford. He went on to mention, “By collecting as much data as possible, and combining that with similar reports from around campus, we can zero in on the cause and rectify it.” By keeping the IT department informed about corrections that need to be made in certain areas, students can help improve their Wi-Fi experience as well.
One of the other initial concerns of students regarding their Wi-Fi is whether or not Principia can track their activity, and if so, to what extent. Retzlaff explained, “Can and do are very different things… If there is a problem, then we can drill down to see the machine from which the problem is originating. Other than that, we’re not in the business of policing adults, provided the Internet-based activity isn’t illegal and doesn’t cause any problems for the network as a whole.” Hufford mentioned something similar, saying that “we only dig as deep as is needed to keep the overall network running smoothly. Once, we noticed a bunch of malicious traffic originating inside our network. We did what it took to locate the traffic and eventually find the computer that had been infected by malware.” According to Hufford and Retzlaff, tracking is used as a way to ensure that the system is working effectively.
While Retzlaff makes it clear that there is indeed a difference between what can be done and what is done in regards to tracking Wi-Fi at Principia College, it is still imperative to ask the question: What can Principia see, if the administration wanted to do so? Whitney stated that “I have never been asked by management to track individual Internet users’ Internet activity, so I don’t.” However, he did mention that Principia cannot geolocate users over the Wi-Fi but that “I can see what WAP a device is currently or has recently been associated to, and that gives me a general area but it is only accurate to a general area of a building, not to a floor or room.”
The rumors surrounding the Wi-Fi at Principia College seem to provide the opportunity to understand and realize the efforts being made by staff members to provide the best possible technological support to students. Retzlaff stated, “We realize that many students may be wondering what, if anything, is being done about perceived issues on the network. Rest assured, we are aware and working towards the best solution for Principia as a whole.”