By Andie Lowenstein, Associate Editor
Today’s average student is walking around with anywhere from three to seven devices relying on top-notch, perfect Internet connection. Within the last 10 years, priorities have made a great shift, as strong dependence on lightning-speed Internet service takes the lead considerably. With multiple residents in one apartment completing online coursework, streaming movies and browsing Facebook around the clock, the demand on Internet supply skyrockets. Without proper IT infrastructure to support the demand, property owners won’t meet resident needs and will be forced to face the music. MHN spoke with Campus Apartments CIO Andrew Marshall to find out how property owners can keep up with student demand and ever-growing technology.
MHN: What are the biggest student demands today in regard to housing?
Marshall: From a student demand point of view there really is only one important thing: the Internet behaves like a utility. It’s just there and it just works. That’s really the number one demand. Really everything else is secondary; there are some pretty good studies that show almost every other property amenity, technology or not, is irrelevant compared to that. Tanning beds and resort pool… people can live without those things, but they can’t live without connectivity.
MHN: How has this changed over the last five to 10 years?
Marshall: Ten years is a good point. Ten years ago and 2007 are the milestones. If we had this conversation in the early 2000s, we’d have been talking about the importance of Triple Play–everyone in student housing should provide their residents with three things: video programming, Internet connection and telephone. This was before every kid had a cell phone. It was when most video programming was considered regular cable TV. When we started out providing technology to student housing residents in about 2001, we were very focused on the Triple Play.
At the next milestone 2007, when the smartphone started to become popular–there were no iPhones or iPads before 2007–telephony just fell off completely. Nobody right now is putting telephones or even telephone outlets into [student] housing–that’s just not a consideration. And really, what we’re telling everybody is the video side of things is becoming less and less important because most students don’t watch TV that way. With the exception of some local, scheduled or college sports events they might watch on live TV, almost no student resident is watching a show on TV live. The TV aspect is de-emphasized. It still has its place and you still have to deliver it today, but I think probably in five years you won’t need to do it. It still has a specialized place in locations like fitness centers and common rooms of apartments, but more likely than not they’re streaming on their devices rather than doing it over a traditional cable TV network. That leaves us with Internet and one of the issues is that with telephony and cable TV going away, that puts a much greater emphasis on Internet as a deliverable. The first, second and third priority is stable Internet.
MHN: What new technologies and/or offerings are available for student housing owners?
Marshall: Really, the technology hasn’t actually changed that much. We still bring an Internet connection into a property, we still distribute through the property. What’s changed is the expectation of how that is done. If we had this conversation five years ago, we’d talk about enough bandwidth. That’s still kind of true. Now the focus is on what we’re calling “User Experience.” There should be no friction at all between a resident buying and turning on their device and getting connected. They shouldn’t have to register things or log in or put passwords in, it should be a totally seamless experience. They should always have enough bandwidth to do what they need to do without thinking that bandwidth is a problem and they should always have a situation where if they want to use it on whatever device they want it should just work.
That’s actually really hard to do. We’ve in fact had to develop some proprietary technology to enable that in some cases. The basic building blocks of student housing Internet aren’t like residential Internet; they’re much more like a Fortune 500 company enterprise network. They’re much better industrial grade components, enterprise-grade components, to achieve the reliability and flexibility to reduce that friction. The real trick is not a new technology particularly; it’s in changing the way that we apply it and we’re discovering the rules as we go. We just got to the point this year, 2015, where we’re pretty comfortable with how it is right now but of course we’re still keeping an eye on what’s coming in the next one to three years.
MHN: What do student housing owners mainly look for in their Internet providers?
Marshall: If you [the property owner] don’t do it right, you’re going to pay the price in terms of losing residency etc. The fact of the matter is if your Internet sucks you’re going to lose occupancy. It’s one of those situations where if you do absolutely everything right, nobody’s going to say anything, it’s just going to be expected. If you do it wrong you’re going to have a problem. So from my point of view, I think it’s much more a property ownership/property management driven issue rather than a student housing resident issue.
The problem is there aren’t that many people that can do this. If you take a traditional Internet provider, the default position for student housing is the default senior housing or default hospitality position which is: we’re in real estate, we really don’t understand this stuff, let’s just call Time Warner or the local cable company and let them deal with it. The problem is that in student housing, because of the things we’ve been talking about, that doesn’t work any longer. In fact, it hasn’t worked for quite some time. But there’s a lot of properties and a lot of owners still stuck with that situation and don’t know how to change it. Maybe they’re in long-term contracts and they’re finding they pay the price of not having the flexibility.
We’ve been successful with this issue because we own our own Internet provider, Campus Technologies. It’s an independent company for us and we spend our entire time staring at this problem figuring how to fix it, not just for Campus Apartments but other owners too. You need a specialist who understands student residents and the demands of this demographic in order to be successful. Two things I would say to property owners: Don’t take the default cable company position because that’s going to get you into trouble. Number two: Hire someone who actually knows student housing, it’s pretty important to get that right.
MHN: Even with service upgrades, it seems student usage tends to increase faster than their expectations. What can be done to try to level the playing field?
Marshall: The obvious ones are make sure you have enough bandwidth and a network operator that understands the space and has support staff that understands the students. I think the key to success is in Wi-Fi deployment. Most kids these days aren’t interested in connecting with a wire–it’s all about wireless. Make sure you get the wireless right, which means you’ve got to have an awful lot of access points. We plan on supporting between 10 and 20 devices per resident. Whenever I say that, people go “that’s insane that can’t be right,” but we average across our networks I think 7-point-something devices per resident today. Ten is not far away. We’re planning for 20 because you want your network to last longer than a year or two. So really, having enough stable Wi-Fi and managing that Wi-Fi is the key to success. One thing you can do is make sure you control your own destiny. You can’t take the position that you’re not in the technology business, and you don’t want anything to do with it, because this is an integral part of what your residents expect just like pools, just like air conditioning, just like water coming out of the tap.
MHN: What does the future look like for student housing and IT? How can student housing owners start to confront these challenges now?
Marshall: The first thing anyone should do is look at the contract they have in place. Look at the contract you have, look at the end date and don’t just let yourself get defaulted into renewing. Think about what you want to do, talk to residents and find out if they have problems. Survey the residents; find out what they’re looking for that you’re not providing. Understand the demographic, because student housing demographics change like any other demographic. If you speak to a student in downtown LA they’re going to have a different expectation than the student in rural Pennsylvania–different demands and different priorities. So, understand your students and what they want. Understand your contract position–what you can and can’t do–and don’t renew by default. Get advice from people you know. I can’t overstate that because people try to deal with this and find out they don’t have the technological knowledge and then default back to cable companies. Where we see most problems, that’s usually what has happened. Cable companies just aren’t geared–they don’t have the ability to resolve these kinds of issues.
What works in multifamily doesn’t work in student housing. The converse is that today’s student housing resident is the multifamily resident of next year or the year after. So, multifamily in general should be eyeing what goes on in student housing and making sure they have a plan to go the same route.