Netflix won’t load? I can help

Very often, I will be approached or I will overhear a conversation regarding the quality of Colby’s Wi-Fi. While the exact wording differs, the basis is always the same: Colby’s Wi-Fi needs improvement. I would like for everyone to understand why their Internet quality is lacking and what you can do about it.

First, you need to know a little bit about the access points. Those are the boxes in dorms that have the antennae attached and a few blinking lights. For those who have domes on the ceilings of your hallways, those contain access points. One thing you should know is that the signal radiates out from the length of the antennae, rather than shooting out from the tip. Thus, pointing the antenna toward your room not only decreases your quality of Internet, but the quality of Internet for those around you.

The access points, or APs are a few years old, which is understandable as new Internet infrastructure is expensive. On average, each AP services 10 students. When they were installed, every student had a laptop. There were no smartphones, only a few iTouches, and if there were gaming devices, they were most likely connected via Ethernet. For the most part, each AP had about 10 devices on it, which were 10 personal computers. Now, most students have smartphones, if not a few more devices that connect via Wi-Fi. Therefore, on average, each access point services an average of around 25 devices.

The other issue with the APs being a bit old is that the data required by online services, such as Netflix, is much larger than it was a few years ago.  Each AP can broadcast 100 Megabytes a second. To put that in context, 5 Megabytes is equal to 30 seconds of HD broadcast quality video. As you move further from the AP, the signal strength decreases, and that 100 Megabytes begins to diminish. A general rule in wireless internet is that as distance increases, interference also increases, thus quality of internet decreases. 

The job of an AP is very difficult. Each of the 25 connected devices is constantly talking to the AP and it is responding. However, because each device is different, they send different signals. A helpful analogy to understand how the AP works is to see it is a teacher in a classroom where student speaks a different language. Each student is speaking at the teacher in his or her respective language and expects immediate, full attention back from the teacher. The teacher must now respond in the language that the student speaks, and provide the information requested. Since a teacher cannot give his or her full attention to just one student, attention is divided equally, as that is the most fair. When the class had 10 students, this was completely manageable. Now, however, there are 25. Combining that with the 100 Megabytes from each AP, that gives each device about 4 Megabytes a second, without adjusting for distance and interference.

Now, you have a general understanding regarding why your WiFi can be slow. The AP is trying to give your device(s) the attention it needs, but there are so many other devices talking to the AP that it simply does not have the resources to give your device the attention it is requesting. It is using the “fair” approach and allocating all of its resources evenly.

You may ask, “why not just upgrade the system?” Well, the total estimated cost is around $1 million to upgrade all the hardware necessary to give you a better signal. The funding has been approved, but it is a long-term plan. Furthermore, the IT office has only three people that specialize in Internet. Between the three, they cover cyber security, defense, Ethernet hardware, wireless hardware, manage Colby Access and Colby Guest Access and many other things. With little manpower and many other jobs to do, they try to allocate time to everything but there are sometimes higher short-term priorities. New units are being tested in Lovejoy and Davis to try and find the best AP for the dorms.

Here is what you can do about it: get an Ethernet cable. Each internet jack has 100 Megabytes per second going to it, just like an AP. Obviously, the same distance rule applies due to resistance with the wire, but the rate of decline in signal is much smaller than it is with Wi-Fi. You can purchase an Ethernet cable in the bookstore for a few dollars, and every room has one Ethernet port per student. This not only gives your computer better, stronger, and more reliable internet, but it also decreases the number of devices on the AP for phones, tablets, and gaming devices.

If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email at adengler@colby.edu

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