I’ll admit it. I’m one of those students that stands in line to be the first to get at those four or five pleasant study spots — one of the three tables in the cloistral silence of the shelves on the left of purgatory, one of the four or five nice chairs in the Heritage Room, or maybe even the one-and-only window table in the corner of paradise, where the leaves from the trees outside the windows hedge the student in with an ever-moving wall of gold and green. Often my patience is rewarded. I swing my backpack down with a triumphant thud and claim the much-desired table only to find — horror of horrors — that the internet connection isn’t strong enough to access a Google document.
Maybe I should stop complaining and download Microsoft Office — that way I’d be able to work on documents offline — but that doesn’t address the problem. It should be easy to connect to the internet in the library — the very locus of learning. If there’s one place where you ought to be able to browse the JSTOR database or simply download documents, it’s the library.
Nothing frustrates me more than when things don’t work the way they’re supposed to. So I decided to talk to information technology services about the issue.
According to Patrick Chartrand, the lead network engineer in ITS, the internet in Hillsdale is lightning quick. In the early 2000s, former ITS director David Zenz negotiated with Merit Network Inc. to install fiber optics, which made Hillsdale College part of the backbone of internet infrastructure that serves all of central Michigan. Chartrand reported that the connection between Hillsdale’s firewall and the Merit Inc. ISP router gives the college a stunning 10 GB connection. Translation: Hillsdale’s internet is fast. So why am I having trouble? Why can’t I have access to the internet in my favorite study spot?
Chartrand explained although the connection is flawless on the front end — the college has no problem connecting to Merit’s router — the problems that students experience on the back end come from limited access points on campus. Right now there are eight access points in the library. That might seem like a lot, but in reality, a Wi-Fi connection is choked by the weakest link.
“A student connecting to the access point through a brick wall is going to share his poor connection with everyone else trying to use that router,” Chartrand said.
So the solution is simply to install more access points, right?
Yes and no. Although increasing the number of access points can help to bring solid connection to areas with limited Wi-Fi, there is a downside.
“A Wi-Fi signal is like a wave,” Chartrand said. “When two waves meet, the troughs and crests can cancel each other out. It’s the same with a Wi-Fi signal. When two signals meet, it can result in a dead spot.
It isn’t just a matter of installing more access points. It’s also a tedious balancing act.
A new access point costs about $175, Chartrand said. The network cable that links the access point to the network switches in the data center costs between $600 to $1,200.
“We could easily double the number of access points in the library,” Chartrand said, “but throwing more access points into the mix isn’t always the right solution. You have to be aware of the many factors of wireless technology and radio frequency and try your best to provide connectivity for the locations that it’s needed, all while staying within budget.”
Chartrand said ITS just installed a new access point in the library’s fishbowl classroom last week.
If you are like me, bristling in frustration whenever your connection cuts out in the library, then be pacified. It turns out that this is a complex problem that takes a whole team of network engineers to fix. Rest assured: The ITS department is working tirelessly to improve our connection.
Aaron Andrews is a senior studying English.