Few students would disagree that USC’s wireless Internet service is due for some fine-tuning, but they might not realize the amount of work and money required to improve wireless coverage.
In 2006, Information Technology Services began working to improve its wireless coverage, which had been in place since 2002. ITS added almost 1,000 wireless Internet access points to the pre-existing 620, increasing coverage roughly 160 percent.
But those improvements have not satisfied USC students. In fact, every candidate in the recent Undergraduate Student Government election mentioned improving wireless as one of his or her platform points.
“We’ve had enough student feedback to know that there’s an issue, and I think it’s why you saw candidates talking about it in the student government campaigns,” said John Baldo, director of university affairs for USG. “I think everyone kind of agrees it is something we should have. I think ITS is pretty onboard with making sure we have it.”
Newly elected USG president Chris Cheng said USG’s focus for next year will shift toward improving wireless in the residence halls, as many students have complained about the spotty coverage.
“Before the elections, we had a research period where we talked to as many students as possible,” Cheng said. “There really is a high demand for improvement in the residence halls, and in the core academic buildings — Von KleinSmid and Taper Hall, places where a lot of people have their General Education courses.”
Kevin Durkin, director of communications for ITS, said sometimes it is not the number of access points that creates a weak signal but other types of interference, such as microwave ovens or the wire mesh in the walls of buildings.
Cheng stressed that USG is not suggesting that ITS isn’t doing its job in providing wireless to students.
“But in places where the wireless is weak and low, we want to strengthen it,” he said.
Until recently, wireless coverage was inconsistent, even in Leavey Library, a main study spot for both graduate and undergraduate students. Last semester, USG conducted a meticulous survey of Leavey library, measuring signal strength across the building and identifying its weakest points, gathering student feedback and meeting with library staff and ITS Field Services Director Gabe Ochoa.
“John Baldo presented a very comprehensive report,” said Hugh McHarg, executive director of communications and public programming for the USC libraries. “And we’re very glad the student government folks engaged in that because Internet access is an important part of the service we provide at the library.”
The library agreed to add four new access points, and ITS paid for three more. Each new wireless access point costs $900.
“ITS paid for three access points, so we’re very grateful to them for working with us,” Baldo said. “And now we have seven new access points over the second, third and fourth floors [of Leavey], because those are the floors where students are studying the most.”
Next, USG will work to improve the wireless available in common outdoor areas, such as McCarthy Quad.
“With something like this, you have to start somewhere and sort of focus on one area at a time. You can’t just walk in and say, ‘I want every building next week,’ because there’s this huge cost you have to take into consideration,” Baldo said.
Students disagreed as to whether the first step should be improving wireless in the dorms or in common areas.
“I don’t know how it is in different residence halls, but I know that mine doesn’t get wireless,” said Robert Peterson, a sophomore majoring in music industry who lives in Parkside International Residential College.
Peterson said he thinks improving wireless near the dorms will be an asset to students.
Others, however, think wireless in classrooms needs to be the priority.
“I think classrooms should come first. From what I see, I don’t see a lot of people using their laptops outside,” said Esmeralda del Rio, an undecided sophomore. “My sociology professor always has a hard time getting wireless on her laptop when she’s about to show slideshows. It takes her about, like, five minutes. And sometimes, when she wants to use the Internet, she can’t.”
Kimberly Kanable, a freshman majoring in environmental engineering, said she thinks it makes sense to start with classrooms and common spaces, as Ethernet connections are available in the residence halls.
Baldo said the biggest problem in attempting to improve wireless coverage in any given building is figuring out who is going to cover the cost.
“You know everyone wants perfect wireless in their building, so you can imagine ITS is trying to accommodate what everyone wants, but it’s not really possible when it’s $900 an access point,” Baldo said.
Durkin emphasized ITS is committed to providing the campus with the wireless coverage it increasingly needs.
“ITS recognizes that the increased use of mobile devices — laptops, iPhones, Blackberries and so forth — is driving the demand for improved wireless service, so in response to that we are looking for alternative approaches to providing pervasive, reliable wireless coverage across both campuses. So in other words, stay tuned,” Durkin said.