Behind the Music: Streaming in the Pitt Res Halls | Information Technology | University of Pittsburgh
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Behind the Music: Streaming in the Pitt Res Halls

Techies are a unique bunch. They love their acronyms—and they couldn’t care less if their alphabet soup means something totally different to everyone else. When they talk about WAPs, they’re talking about something that’s the gateway to much of the knowledge you gain and entertainment you consume. During a typical year, it’s used by more than 7,800 students living in more than 30 buildings across campus. It’s available 24/7 and has 12,500 active devices connected to it on the average day.

Yup, for the techies in Pitt Information Technology, when they talk about WAPs, they’re talking about Wireless Access Points, which broadcast the Wi-Fi service in Pitt’s residence halls (MyResNet).

It’s pretty amazing that so much demand for connectivity comes from just a quarter of a square mile. There are more than 60 boroughs in Allegheny County with populations smaller than the number of students living in University-owned housing! Even commercial wireless providers don’t have to deal with that connection density.

A lot happens behind the scenes to keep the data flowing over Pitt’s information superhighway. Here’s how they keep it humming.

Throwback Tune: Before There Was Streaming

Picture it: It was the spring of 2019, and bandwidth consumption on campus was increasing faster than ever. Students were bringing way more devices and doing a ton of streaming. What’s more, everyone was using wireless devices, making desktop PCs a relic. All those laptops, smartphones, and tablets were placing a huge demand on a residence hall network that simply hadn’t been designed to accommodate such rapid growth. Students wanted fast and reliable Wi-Fi, like they had at home. But some students began to experience lag times and couldn’t always get a reliable Wi-Fi connection during peak hours.

Something had to be done. Because historically, less than 2% of student were using ethernet ports, the decision was made by Pitt to phase them out and focus instead on strengthening Wi-Fi infrastructure. The existing cabling could be repurposed to connect the additional hardware necessary to improve the speed and reach of residence hall Wi-Fi.

Simple, right? Not so much. Turns out, building out Wi-Fi capacity is harder than it sounds. It’s not easy to transmit a signal inside of solidly concrete buildings constructed as far back as the 1920s (I’m looking at you, Schenley Quad). Complicating matters was the fact that a network overhaul would result in significant service disruptions, plus require access to each individual student’s room. Can’t do that while buildings are occupied during the fall and spring term. That left only one option: Complete the upgrade over summer break.

Perfect … if Pitt IT had an army of technicians to install all the needed cables/hardware in so many buildings. In reality, they only had enough staff to complete one or two buildings per summer. It would take years to make campus-wide improvements!

Luckily, Pitt IT was introduced to Apogee, a pioneer in serving the unique needs of university residential networks for nearly 20 years. They had the resources and experience to update the entire network in one swoop—every room, on every floor, of every residence hall, in just a few months. Plus, partnering meant that Pitt could leverage Apogee’s expertise and economies of scale for faster speeds without an added expense to students.

Decision made! Less than three months later, MyResNet was up-and-running for the start of the 2019-2020 academic year.

Watching the Charts

Both Pitt IT and Apogee monitor MyResNet service levels around-the-clock through their network operations centers, as well as track support calls to identify patterns that may indicate a broader issue. They also conduct on-site service audits in which they measure Wi-Fi speed, signal strength, and sources of interference on a building-by-building, or even floor-by-floor, basis.

If there’s a power outage, a whole access point goes down, or some other issue affects multiple WAPs, network monitoring is likely to notice it. But some issues just don’t show up on the radar, including one-off connection problems, such as a device not staying connected or not getting a strong signal in the corner of your room. In those cases, there’s no way for them to fix it unless you report it.

For example, late this September, an increase in call volume revealed a pattern of intermittent Wi-Fi problems in several buildings. The cause was identified, firmware updates were made to the switches and routers that served those locations, and service was returned to normal.

Fortunately, Apogee provides 24/7 customer support. Nearly 150 trained representatives staff the MyResNet call center during peak demand. Pitt students can select MyResNet as a support option when calling Pitt’s 24/7 IT Help Desk, which connects you directly with an Apogee agent. Chat and email are options too, but it’s usually faster to identify and fix the problem over the phone.

If you experience an issue, report it right away so it can be immediately investigated. The fix may be as simple as changing a device setting or having a technician make an adjustment to an access point. If something’s not working the way you expect, call 412-624-HELP (4357).

The Latest Release

Which brings us to 2020, a year unlike any other. It’s made us appreciate how remarkably adaptable people … and technology … can be. A year ago, who would have predicted how much time we’d spend online attending classes, Zooming with friends and family, and finding ways to escape it all virtually—if only for a few minutes?

A MyResNet update came just in time! Apogee increased the guaranteed bandwidth at the start of this academic year to 70 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload—per device, for up to seven devices per student—with many students regularly seeing speeds up to 100 Mbps down/50 Mbps up.

Now, we look forward to the end of 2020 and better things to come in the new year. Until then, stay safe. Take some time to de-stress over winter break. And let’s be sure to “reconnect” in January.

-- By Karen Beaudway, Pitt IT Blogger