Levy: Disconnected

Unreliable campus Wi-Fi unfairly burdens students.

by Gabrielle Levy | 3/3/20 2:00am

There are few things more essential to the modern student’s academic life than Wi-Fi. Just checking Canvas to view assignments or downloading video lectures for flipped classes — let alone conducting online research — requires uninterrupted Internet access. Dartmouth students are certainly no exception to this rule. But despite the fact that the College requires students to own laptops and the general necessity of Wi-Fi for academic work, the only consistent thing about campus Wi-Fi is its unreliability. And unfortunately, not all students navigate the problem of poor Internet access equally.

When I was assigned to live in the Lodge this year, I anticipated multiple drawbacks, but a lack of Internet access was not one of them. Yet some days, after attending classes with brilliant professors and peers, I’m left to amuse myself with Chrome’s offline “Dino Running” game after trying to load even the simplest of websites. 

But extremely poor Internet connection isn’t just at off-campus locations like the Lodge. In Baker-Berry Library, I’ve been unable to load Canvas — the online hub of our classes — even after multiple location changes. Beyond the library, students also find these problems at other campus hubs like Collis and the Hop, rendering many great study spaces largely useless.

Although some Dartmouth students are able to create a hotspot using cell service in order to gain Internet access when Wi-Fi isn’t available, many students don’t have unlimited cell service and can’t afford to rack up excess data charges on required academic work. For example, Verizon customers with data plans are charged $15 every time they exceed their plan by 1 GB. If a student lives in a building with bad Wi-Fi, they’ll probably resort to performing most tasks on their phone, which can be a massive drain on their data plan. While some students have no problem paying an overage fee or upgrading their data plan, it’s certainly not an easy calculation for everyone. I’ve even heard students talk of chipping in to purchase their own Wi-Fi routers in dorms and on-campus apartments. Again, this creates a barrier for those who cannot afford to pay for additional access. Since a huge amount of classwork at Dartmouth requires Wi-Fi access, the College’s consistently poor Wi-Fi is yet another feature of life on campus that widens the resource gap between students from less-privileged and more-privileged economic backgrounds. 

Students are right to criticize Dartmouth for its ineffective and inadequate wireless network. It’s unjust that students are not guaranteed basic services like Wi-Fi — even with Dartmouth’s astronomical tuition costs. And parents who want to FaceTime their children — and are often the ones actually paying Dartmouth tuition — are often left isolated from their children’s lack of Wi-Fi access.

Granted, the College’s administration is taking steps to improve the dependability of its networks. When Dartmouth’s network was first installed in 2011, there were only 4,000 devices using it — now there are upwards of 25,000. In 2018, Dartmouth began a partnership with the startup Mist Systems to transform its outdated network into an innovative AI-driven network. In an article published last year in The Dartmouth, Felix Windt, Dartmouth’s assistant director of network services, explained that the College had dedicated approximately $11 million to this endeavor, but that students shouldn’t expect any Wi-Fi upgrade for at least another year. Unfortunately, he also said that students might just have to put up with connection issues in the meantime, as there is little room in the budget left for temporary solutions.

Even though this isn’t exactly the quick fix that most of us students so badly need, it is a relief to know that better access can be expected in the future. At the same time, the administration could clearly improve its communication on this issue — perhaps some posters in the library that students can read while we wait for our browsers to load ...