The Internet connection at University Village Apartments on Colvin Street in Syracuse, N.Y., seemed like it would be more than fast enough. But by the time the property opened in 2009, the definition of “fast” had changed.
The students at University Village demanded connections that would let hundreds of them watch video clips and whole movies over the Internet at the same time. While students grilled property managers at town hall–style meetings, the developer rushed to have copper cables torn out and fiber-optic cables installed at the brand-new, Class A property.
“We’ve got to provide it or risk not being 100 percent leased,” says Scott P. Casey, senior vice president of strategic business development for EdR, a REIT based in Memphis, Tenn.
Super-fast Internet connections are now the most important technological amenity developers and managers can provide at student housing properties.
Strike Up the Bandwidth
Fast Internet speeds have become something students depend on and expect—64 percent said they’d consider relocating if Internet speeds were slower in their student housing than expected, according to data from J Turner Research.
“There’s just this insatiable appetite for speed,” says Joseph Batdorf, the firm’s president.
Fast Internet is not only the most important technological amenity for students, it’s also the third-most important amenity of any kind for any demographic, behind only an in-unit washing machine and a bathroom to one’s self, according to J Turner.
“Students are doubling their usage every two years,” says Joe Coyle, president of University Student Living, the student housing division of Marlton, N.J.–based Michaels Organization.
The race to speed up Internet connections began when students started to watch movies and television shows online. And the need for speed has grown rapidly ever since, which isn’t surprising when one considers that all 7,000-plus students polled by J Turner spend a significant amount of time using the Internet in their homes—86 percent say they spend more than three hours per day.
Multiple devices also make a difference—a quarter of students surveyed say they connect to the Internet with more than three devices.
“Each kid is using three to five devices,” says EdR’s Casey. That multiplies the Internet needs at a property by several times. “A 500-bed property almost becomes like a 2,000-bed property,” Casey says.
The Internet connection in apartments should match the speed of the connection at the university, experts say, a standard that student housing owners have scrambled to meet. In 2011, a little more than half of students polled said Internet connections were slower in their student housing than at their college. A year later, that percentage had shrunk to a little more than a quarter.
Most managers provide wireless Internet connections that cover at least the common areas and sometimes the entire 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 Coyle. “We’re building in extra capacity.”
Student housing managers aim to provide capacity that works out to be 20 megabytes per second (mbps) 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’s probably a safe number,” says Casey.
At a large project, with close to 1,000 beds, 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 owner already spent to lay down cables just a few years ago.
“We’ve gone in and retrofitted. We’ve buried fiber-optic cables and added tech closets,” says Casey. This work is most difficult at old high-rise properties, where it’s more challenging to get into the walls to install cables. But the effort is worth it.
“At communities with copper, we get more complaints from residents,” says J. Wesley Rogers, president and CEO of Athens, Ga.–based Landmark Properties. “Some of these older communities are not going to be able to compete.”
Owning the ProblemThe problem gets worse when property managers have to rely on an outside company to increase the speed on their Internet connections. Local Internet providers can 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 Rogers.
Internet service is so important that EdR has bought a minority ownership stake in Internet service provider Elauwit Networks.
“It gives us some control over the most important amenity,” says Casey. EdR’s Internet service even includes solid tech support, to make sure the residents can connect with ease.
Landmark has also taken control of its Internet service. The company buys its Internet service in bulk from AT&T and runs the connection through fiber-optic cables that it laid itself. Most of this technology is invisible to residents—cables and routers are tucked away inside walls and in tech closets. They only notice 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 dedicated to enjoying 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 other 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 cyber cafés came in fourth.
TV and Smart phone
Some other forms of connectivity are no longer considered amenities—they are simply taken for granted. For example, students assume that they will be able to talk on their cell phones in their homes without calls getting dropped. In 2011, good cellular phone service rated as the second-most important amenity, after a large bedroom.
“It’s absolutely critical,” says Batdorf. “If [properties] don’t have good cell-phone reception, I think they’re dead. It’s like having a car with no AC in Houston.”
Bad cellular service can be exposed as soon as a student visits the community: Many prospective residents will try calling someone from the model apartment.
Students also still watch cable television and have begun to ask for more high-definition television channels in their cable service.
“Students are really demanding that, for the first time in years,” notes Casey.
Technology can make a big difference when students move into their new homes. And that’s particularly important in the student housing universe, where, unlike in conventional housing, most residents arrive all at the same time.
“It’s chaos,” says Les Eldrege, user experience director for Lehi, Utah–based Property Solutions. “There’s a big line of students.”
And many of them have traveled a long distance. But before they can get their keys and begin moving in, they often need to sign papers, have their driver’s license photocopied, or even turn in a check for their first month’s rent.
Technology can help. Students can now handle much of this paperwork and pay their first month’s rent online, before they start their road trip to campus.
Every payment or piece of documentation collected beforehand cuts down on the likelihood of delay and embarrassment on move-in day—as students pat their pockets for the driver’s license or parents explain that they don’t carry a checkbook.
For students who bring their driver’s license, property managers can take a picture of it with an iPad, saving a walk back to the photocopier machine in the property management office.
Once residents are settled in, it’s common for them to submit maintenance requests online. And property management software companies are making it possible to send requests over a smart phone—including the ability to send a photo of the problem. If the maintenance team has better information on the problem it needs to fix, it may be able to avoid an extra trip back to the maintenance office to get a part or a tool.
Residents also expect to be able to pay their rent online. But the dependence of students on the Internet has given managers an incredibly effective threat to ensure timely payment.
“If someone isn’t paying their rent, we’ll tone down their Internet to, like, dial-up speed,” says Landmark’s Rogers. “That gets their attention in a heartbeat.”