Cal Poly students depend on campus WiFi to keep their work (and Netflix queue) in order. Alison Robinson, associate vice president of Information Technology (IT) at Cal Poly, helps keep tabs on it.
Robinson said WiFi use always spikes around finals week. On the last day of Fall 2018 classes, 40,329 individual devices connected to SecureMustangWireless, Cal Poly’s WiFi network, 1,968,592 total times. Split evenly, each device would have to reconnect to the network about 49 times. That is a lot of reconnecting.
SecureMustangWireless is infamous among students for being unreliable. Aerospace engineering junior William Yu said he often has trouble connecting to the network.
“It sucks,” Yu said. “The connection is pretty spotty. The speed is okay, I guess. But the coverage from building to building is not very reliable.”
Civil engineering junior Yanting Jiang said they get tired of the tedious reconnecting process.
“I’ll be sitting right outside the library and have no WiFi,” Jiang said. “I have to disconnect and then reconnect and then log in again. It’s a hassle sometimes.”
Workers at the IT help desk estimate they receive about 10 emails or phone calls each weekday related to WiFi issues. However, there are some things they cannot fix.
Older buildings on campus have worse WiFi
If you pay attention while walking to class, you will notice plate-sized white discs mounted on ceilings throughout every building on campus. Those are access points — they send out wireless signals devices can see and connect to. Not including the residence halls, Cal Poly has 1,422 access points. However, even though these access points look the same, their strength is dependent on the wiring behind them.
Robinson explained that even though WiFi is a wireless network, it still needs physical wires for its foundation. The older the wires powering access points, the slower the WiFi will be.
“Wireless networks are just an extension of a physical network,” Robinson said. “All wireless networks at some point become wired.”
Older buildings on campus have older wires and thus slower WiFi. Per Robinson, the speed discrepancy becomes more noticeable when many people are trying to connect to the same access point, slowing down everyone’s connection more quickly.
SecureMustangWireless is not designed to work outside
Students often drop connectivity while walking between buildings for class or sitting outside. When this happens, it is not because the network is being spotty. Since the campus has no outdoor access points, the network is not designed to work outdoors. Any WiFi connection received outside is actually a testament to how strong indoor access points are, which can sometimes extend beyond their intended reach.
“If you walk outdoors and you’re connected to SecureMustangWireless, you’re using network that’s bleeding out of a building,” Robinson said. “You can walk by an area where it’s bleeding out, but then you step around the corner and it’s gone.”
A lack of outdoor access points means there is no campus infrastructure to keep WiFi connection steady while moving from one side of campus to the other. This is why students have to reconnect to SecureMustangWireless so many times in one day — each new building means a new connection.
The root certificate setup and renewal process is confusing
Robinson said the IT help desk is regularly questioned about root certificate issues. Root certificates help keep the connection between campus WiFi and each device safe. However, the original setup process is nine steps and the certificate needs to be renewed every year to work, as well as when students update devices. Also, because the certificate is linked to Cal Poly portals, if students change their portal password, they have to reconnect to SecureMustangWireless using their new password.
How WiFi on campus might change
Cal Poly’s IT Services chooses three to five priorities to focus on every four months. Starting in March, one of those priorities will be improving the WiFi customer experience on campus.
“If there’s still something that’s a problem, keep letting us know,” Robinson said. “It sucks? Okay, that’s experience, but I can’t improve that. Let me know what you’re experiencing and we can keep looking at it and keep at it.”
Some potential changes include simplifying the WiFi setup process, updating security certificates with less impact to users and adding an outdoor wireless network.
“We’re here to help and we want to enable teaching and learning,” Robinson said. “And Netflix.”