New College House West, which opened last fall, has been well-received by its first residents, with many impressed by its luxury perks. But despite its novelty, NCHW is hiding a dark secret: the lack of fixed broadband in dorm rooms.
Ethernet ports — the orange jacks you’ve seen in your dorm room — provide high-speed wired network connectivity. Previously, I wrote about how those looking for better internet can use Ethernet instead of AirPennNet for better, faster, safer, and more reliable internet access. All dorms, supposedly, are equipped with Ethernet ports, making this easy for anyone desiring better quality internet than AirPennNet. Unfortunately, however, I was wrong: New College House West doesn’t have them. Why not?
In an email response, Annenberg School for Communication IT Director Richard Cardona told me that Ethernet and phone ports in dorms were installed in the mid-1990s, and, until now, new dorms like Lauder College House also had Ethernet installed. When I moved into the Quad in 2019 as a first year, I remember Penn Residential Services’ online handbook boasting that all rooms were equipped with Ethernet for high-speed internet, in addition to AirPennNet access. By 2021, this verbiage mysteriously disappeared. There’s no mention at all of this broadband utility in the handbook anymore.
Last semester, I was in a Zoom meeting with my teammates, doing our final demonstration for a class project. Suddenly, the rest of my group dropped out of the meeting simultaneously. An AirPennNet issue had caused everyone but me to disconnect, and the students in NCHW had no Ethernet alternative to rejoin.
Poor internet service in dorms is hardly an attractive selling point. In an email response to me, Paul Forchielli, the senior associate director for Building Operations in Residential Services, explained that the lack of Ethernet in NCHW “was a business decision based on historic usage and factored in the cost of installing. … Multi-year data on the overall use of wired ports across campus indicates a general trend of wireless being preferred over wired networking on campus.”
This radical departure from previous precedent was never communicated transparently to the student body. Recall that during construction, Penn boasted a $14.7 billion endowment and spent $163 million on NCHW, making it the most expensive dorm built to date. Yet the University couldn’t afford to install Ethernet ports in rooms? I don’t buy it.
This is not some arbitrary cost-saving feat, but a real-world impact that affects students trying to complete classwork or join Zoom meetings. NCHW residents have no choice but to put up with slow, unreliable internet access, not having the luxury of Ethernet ports to which all other residents at Penn have access, putting them at a significant disadvantage compared to other students. Digital redlining is what I’d expect of greedy internet service providers, not Penn.
Residential Services blames students for the lack of Ethernet ports, saying that they weren’t using them enough. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Even when I moved into the Quad in 2019, Residential Services did zilch to educate students about them. Ports are deactivated by default; students need to file tickets and wait days for Information Systems and Computing to activate them. How many have tried to connect to an Ethernet port only to give up when it didn’t work because it wasn’t activated? How many didn’t know to open a ticket? How much more usage would they see if they were activated by default? The onus isn’t on students to prove this service is useful to us, but on Residential Services for taking it away because it thinks otherwise. Microsoft removed the Start Menu in Windows 8 because they thought people weren’t using it. Turns out, that didn’t go super well for them, and they brought it back.
Around campus, people are frustrated with AirPennNet and are seeking out Ethernet as a better alternative.
Georgios Georgakis, a GRASP Lab postdoctoral researcher, noted, “I kept getting disconnected from zoom today while I was in ANNS 110, probably due to issues of AirPennNet. … Is there a way to connect via cable in ANNS 110?”
“I spent much of yesterday trying to sort out tech issues and will be better prepared today (e.g. I plan to run Zoom on the podium computer which is hard-wired and therefore less prone to disruptions)," said Mayur Naik, a Computer and Information Science professor at Penn.
Whether AirPennNet is more popular is irrelevant. I mainly use a desktop — with no Wi-Fi capabilities — because desktops are designed to be plugged in. Since Residential Services discontinued telephone service, I also rely on Ethernet for my VoIP phone service. Even if AirPennNet is good enough for most students, that’s small comfort to those who require Ethernet access or anyone encumbered by AirPennNet’s history of failure across campus. If Penn catered only to the majority, we wouldn’t have left-handed desks or gender-neutral restrooms, so why does the University do this when it comes to internet access?
In an email response, Forchielli claimed that the lack of Ethernet in NCHW is “similar to what other higher education institutions have experienced on their campuses,” but this isn’t true everywhere. Take Stanford University, for instance. Ethernet ports are available in every room, with no need to wait to get internet service activated like at Penn. In addition, free phone service is available in every room — long-distance and telephone included. If Stanford can do it, Penn can, too.
Penn is failing to provide essential connectivity to all students. The lack of Ethernet ports at NCHW is not a small oversight — it is an abject failure by Penn to consider the true ramifications and costs of this decision. We are now in the middle of a pandemic, when reliable internet access is more important than ever before, yet Penn is depriving NCHW residents of the hardwired Ethernet option, even as it requires sophomores to live on campus. Penn must undo this poor business decision and install Ethernet ports in NCHW, just as it did in other dorms, and guarantee that all students have access to this broadband infrastructure.
NAVEEN ALBERT is an Engineering junior studying computer engineering from Waukesha, Wis. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.