Observing the Higher Powers: We Need Better Internet

Imagine the following scene: you open your computer, intending to go on the Internet to read one of the many articles for class that your professor posted on Moodle. Upon opening your browser, you’re greeted with a familiar screen: not your homepage, but the remediation network, informing you that you’re required to reinstall anti-virus software that you’re probably already installed at least twice. The remediation network is obviously everyone’s favorite place to be on Swarthmore’s campus. Additionally, it’s perhaps the most representative symbol of Internet here at Swat.

Complaints about our Internet quality are commonplace and quite justified. For a school of our caliber and academic reputation, reliable, top-notch Internet is a must. In 2012, it’s a necessity both to the basic functioning of the college and to maintaining a strong campus community for students that live here. Frankly, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to question our Internet access, because of both how it appears to be below par and how many of the problems are quite frustrating in nature.

Now, before I talk about any specific issues with Swarthmore’s Internet, I want to make one thing quite clear: I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, highly literate in computing and Internet technology. I don’t profess to have deeply technological knowledge of how networks and Internet connectivity work. What I do know, however, is that many of the problems we experience seem to defy common sense, and don’t need a technical explanation.
The first such issue I alluded to in the beginning of the column: getting connected to the Internet at Swarthmore. The number of steps and amount of time needed to connect your computer to SwatNet is too damn high.

I have spent time on a variety of college campuses through my travel with Peaslee, and Swarthmore’s network is by far and away the most complicated to connect to. As an illustrative example, NYU offers visitors a network that they can connect to easily, that does not require them to download and install any software. By contrast, visitors to our campus must get login information from one of the libraries, and they must also install the same antivirus software that all of us love so much in order to connect to our Internet. Are these steps really necessary? Of course NYU is a significantly larger school than Swarthmore, but it seems highly improbable that they’re needed in order to maintain the security of our network. An easy solution to implement could involve a visitor network that had some restrictions on the type of activity allowed, such as downloading large audio and video files, but permitted easy access for those visiting our campus.

Beyond getting connected, a larger day-to-day problem experienced by plenty of Swat students is the reliability of our Internet. There’s a reason that lots of Swatties joke when they receive an email from ITS telling them that the network has just been down, and that service is now restored: it happens with alarming frequency. In the nearly three years that I’ve been a student here, I can’t remember a month where there were not at least a few instances when Internet service was disrupted. A particularly good example of this problem was relayed to me by one of my hallmates. During preregistration for the first year class this August, the network was overwhelmed by the number of students trying to register, and crashed.

A network designed for a college campus should be able to handle daily traffic levels, including expected peak traffic times like the incident listed above, without any problem at all. If it can’t, then there’s a clear need to address that problem and ensure that our service is more robust and able to handle the amount of Internet activity that happens on campus. I recognize that emergencies and accidents happen, and that those can never be completely controlled.

But at the same time, those should be extremely rare and not closer to the norm. Without having an advanced degree in information technology or computer networking, I hesitate to make detailed suggestions as to how we should go about fixing these persistent issues that plague our campus. But at the same time, I do understand that they are serious issues that absolutely need to be addressed in a serious manner. For Swarthmore not to have highly reliable, fast Internet in 2012 is, to be blunt, embarrassing.

As conceited as it might sound, we are a leader among academic institutions in the U.S., which means that we should have top-notch Internet capabilities as a part of that. And if that means investing more money into developing a better, faster, more stable network, then so be it. As a reasonably well-educated observer who normally hates this idea, throwing more money at the problem may be quite helpful here. At the bare minimum, it would allow the college to purchase more bandwidth, which would improve the speed of our connection. Clearly, that won’t solve the entire problem, but it would at least be an important first step towards improving our Internet’s quality. Regardless of the technical fix, something has to change.

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  1. 0
    A thought says:

    Ethernet cables are underrated. So are ethernet ports. I’d rather have a campus without wireless, but with easy access to ethernet ports inside, than the present situation.

  2. 0
    Frustrated administrator says:

    I couldn’t agree more – am in all day meetings on campus and can’t get wireless access – it’s highly variable and difficult when it does work, impossible when not.

  3. 0
    aw swatnet :( ( User Karma: 1 ) says:

    Filed under #firstworldproblems but I think that a campus that puts so much emphasis on operating online (emailed updates! everything should be on Moodle! submit your papers online!) has to make getting online easy.

    Admittedly: we all make fun of ITS, but they’re incredibly hard-working. Admittedly: if you’re hitting the remediation network so often, you should check in with ITS because at most you should have to go through the Cloudpath thing without re-installing McAfee and so forth. Admittedly: there exists connectivity all over campus. Admittedly: I really like having free anti-virus software, even if it’s McAfee. These are all awesome things.

    At the same time, Adam’s point stands that there have been some serious problems with connectivity where we just can’t access the internet and do our homework. That’s a problem–if the college wants everything online, it needs to be implemented well. Reducing this concentration on digitalization? Probably not going to happen, and I’m down with that. But in compensation, there needs to be more reliable connectivity.

  4. 0
    Agree Totally says:

    I totally agree that the internet at Swarthmore is a huge problem. The frequent internet disruptions isn’t really my biggest concern though. It is the fact that I often have to use an ethernet cord in my dorm room (Dana, not ML or somewhere off campus) in order to get sufficient speed to navigate something as simple as a news site. Why is it so slow? It didn’t used to be this way. It seems like something went wrong somewhere around alumni weekend of this year, and it just hasn’t been fixed. Let’s face it, internet is important for school work. The fact that it is so slow is a huge hindrance. I shouldn’t have to be connected to a wall 100% of the time to get an adequate internet signal.

  5. 0
    How Do Computers Work? says:

    Your disclaimer (“I want to make one thing quite clear…”) reads to me as some sort of apology for a lack of rigor. Imagine how this reads to any of the ITS people. How about you start by actually READING one of those e-mails that ITS sends out any time they’re doing work on the network. I think if you actually met any of the people who send you those e-mails, you can see that they’re clearly working hard to make the Swarthmore network the best it can be. It’s a little insulting to admit that you know nothing about the problem and then moan about how no one’s fixing it.

    And this bandwidth solution? Please. Take a look at the latest ITS newsletter (three clicks from the Swarthmore homepage,) and see that just this March they increased the bandwidth by 100 Mb/s. It’s now 360 Mb/s, which means that you get an allotment of 3.5 Mb/s per student when downloading. NYU, as far as I can tell, has a 3 Mb/s allotment. And if you don’t like your wireless speeds, for the love of God, you can just connect with an ethernet cable: ITS just improved networking to 1 GB speeds over the summer.

    All this research took about 10 minutes tops. But it’s a lot easier to criticize than to truly understand, right?

    File under #firstworldproblems.

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