MAC apartments sort out Wi-Fi troubles with GCI

Wireless Internet has become a necessity for survival in today’s increasingly digital world. Wi-Fi is so commonplace its availability in today’s homes and businesses is often an afterthought, a detail that comes to mind only when unexpectedly absent. This is especially true for college students, who use the Internet on an hourly basis for their homework, social life and entertainment.

David Weaver, the director of University Housing, Dining, and Conference Services, understood the importance of a sound Internet connection for students when he acquired a new wireless network for the residential campus over the summer.

“Doing homework is one thing. But having good Wi-Fi is a quality of life issue.”

With a student housing population close to a thousand, the new network needed a large enough bandwidth that, when divided among all the residents, could provide reliable service. That is why a total of 450 Mbps (megabits per second) is now “piped” to the residential halls and apartments.

Last year, this was the amount of bandwidth shared between the main campus and UAA housing.

The UHDCS purchased a service contract along with the new wireless contract. This means GCI is responsible for the maintenance and support of the wireless network instead of UAA’s IT Services.

“[UHDCS] felt that it was a better decision to have a service model – meaning a monthly fee for all services including technological refresh, troubleshooting, truck rolls, you know having our folks on site, as well as a 24/7 help desk,” GCI Director of Business Services Jim Kostka said.

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The move has gone smoothly – for most residents anyway. MAC apartment dwellers dealt with connection problems for more than a month after the semester began. After flyers were posted to every apartment door in early September informing students housing staff would be collecting landline phones and modems, one peeved student wrote, “To complain call David Weaver at 907-751-7101.”

This set off a flurry of calls to the director of housing who said he was in “crisis-mode” for a couple days. Weaver says he received as many as 90 calls and e-mails from MAC residents over the matter.

“You can take hot water and heat away from a student and its no big deal. But you take Wi-Fi away for a day and people are up in arms. That was a learning moment for me,” Weaver said.

GCI had to temporarily shut off the Wi-Fi for several hours one morning to detect the locations of “rogue routers” – personal routers used by students.

“The bathrooms and the tin roofs on the entryway were what was really killing the signal,” Kostka said. The MAC bathrooms have two-layers of dry wall and plenty of grout and mortar underneath the tiled-walls.

“That just causes havoc with wireless, versus a hardwire solution,” Kostka said. ”Obviously, if everyone had tissue paper walls, it would be wonderful.”

In attempts to increase connectivity GCI has more than doubled the amount of wireless access points, or “WAPs.” There were just 17 in the apartments at the beginning of the semester.

This move to wireless Internet for the residential campus came after the housing department decided to pull its landline phones and DSL Internet service. According to the director of housing, the switch to wireless will save the department $110,000 every year.

“We made a calculated choice, we went to RHA, went to the police, went to risk management and asked, ‘Would you allow us to shut off the landline phones?’” Weaver said.

GCI believes the Wi-Fi in the apartments is showing signs of improvement as they continue to visit the apartments not getting coverage.

“At a glance the service must be working and okay because everyday there’s more and more users on there,” Kostka said. “Usually if the service isn’t acceptable, then you see that the bandwidth is hardly being utilized at all.”

Still, some students aren’t all that optimistic about the future of the Wi-Fi situation in the apartments.

“I can’t see the Internet getting any better than it is now,” biology student Hunter Jones said earlier this month, “I think the only way we’d be able to get a better connection consistently would be to bring back the wired internet connections to each room in the apartment complexes and then put strictures on that.”

Housing and GCI, however, continue their efforts to improve Wi-Fi for on campus residents.

 For 24/7 technical assistance regarding Internet issues at housing, please contact the GCI Help Desk at 907-865-4456.