The Internet connection in apartments should match the speed of the connection at the college, experts say.

Managers of student housing have scrambled to meet that standard. In 2011, a little more than half of students polled said that the Internet connections were slower in their student housing than at their college. A year later, that had shrunk to a little over a quarter of students polled.

Most managers provide wireless Internet connections that cover at least the common areas and sometimes the entire student housing property. They also install data ports in each bedroom for students to connect to the Internet through cables and encourage students to use the cable connections for large downloads.

“The main thing is to provide the widest pipe possible,” says Joe Coyle, president of University Student Living. “We are building in extra capacity.”

Student housing managers aim to provide capacity that works out to 20 megabytes per second to individual students through a data port, and 10 mbps over a wireless connection. To meet that standard, managers link their properties with fiber optic cables that can carry between 300 mbps and 1 gigabyte per second.

“Five hundred megabytes—that is probably a safe number,” says Scott P. Casey, senior vice president of strategic business development for EdR, a REIT based in Memphis, Tenn.

At a large project, with close to 1,000 beds, this fiber optic cable could cost $300,000 to $800,000 to install.

Adding this infrastructure can be even more expensive at existing communities. Especially if the property spent to lay down cables a few years ago that are now no longer good enough to provide the fast Internet service residents demand.

“We have gone in and retrofit. We have buried fiber optic cables and added tech closets,” says EdR’s Casey. This work is most difficult at older, high-rise properties, where it is more difficult to get into the walls to install cables.

“At communities with copper, we get more complaints from residents,” says J. Wesley Rogers, CEO of Landmark Properties. “Some of these older communities there are not going to be able to compete.”

Owning the problem
The problem gets worse when property managers have to rely on an outside company to increase the speed on its Internet connections. Local Internet provider might think it fine to take weeks or months to install upgraded equipment.

But time runs at a different speed for the residents at student housing. Their entire college experience will only last a few years. A few months can seem like an intolerably long time. “You cannot afford to get a bad reputation,” says Landmark’s Rogers.

Internet service is so important that EdR has bought a minority ownership stake in an Internet service provider, Elauwit Networks. “It gives us some control over the most important amenity,” says Casey.  EdR’s Internet service includes solid tech support to make sure the residents can connect to the service.

Landmark Properties has also taken control of its Internet service. The manager buys its Internet service in bulk from AT&T and run the connection through its properties through fiber optic cables that it laid itself.

Most of this technology is invisible to residents—the cables and routers are tucked away inside walls and in tech closets. They only see the speed of their Internet connection when a slow connection causes a problem—for example, the movie they’re watching stops and starts.

Students seem less interested in elaborate, built-out areas to enjoy this technology. Asked what kind of communal spaces they would be likely to use, students showed minimal interest in gaming rooms, styled after old-fashioned video arcades, and high-tech clubhouses.

Students said a simple computer room is the third most desirable common space, after fitness centers and study rooms. Coffee shops or cybercafés came in fourth.