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Tech trouble: Students navigate an online campus with Zoom, UA WiFi

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Lagging videos, frozen Zoom meetings and that dreaded loading screen. These are sights University of Arizona students have become accustomed to as they navigate virtual classes. Internet users all over campus are left wondering what the source of their technology woes is.

“Sometimes the professor will freeze, and I don’t know if it’s their Wi-Fi or my Wi-Fi or what’s going on,” said Erin Allen, a senior French major and resident assistant in the Colonia de La Paz Residence Hall on campus. 

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Allen said that her most disruptive technology issues occur when she has to conduct Zoom meetings with her camera on.

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“I work at the [Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques] Center, so we’re doing all of our tutoring over Zoom," Allen said. "That’s a bigger issue [than attending class] because I have to have my camera on. Zoom doesn’t work as well when your camera's on as opposed to when you’re just using your mic.” 

In response to these errors and inconsistencies, Allen has opted to rely on data on her phone to connect to Zoom meetings. 

“I’m on my phone across campus all the time because I just don’t want to have to worry about dropping out of a Zoom or something like that,” Allen said.  

With the renewed emphasis on virtual learning and with live online meetings being one of the four class formats taught this spring, one might predict that UA Wi-Fi would be increasingly burdened than in past semesters. 

However, according to UA Communications Network Analyst Ken Boynton, UA Wi-Fi has actually been under less strain last semester than they have seen previously.

Boynton pulled a figure showing wireless usage over the course of the day last semester. He hovered his cursor over the top of one of the peaks.


UA WiFi usage

 Graph showing wireless usage at different times and days throughout a week. Screenshot courtesy Ken Boynton.  


“As you can see, our peak during the week is usually Wednesday with 13,536 concurrent users on the network,” Boynton said. “That’s nothing compared to last year. We would average last year between 45 and 48,000 users at a peak part of the day.”

Boynton explained that Zoom is less bandwidth-intensive — a description of the amount of data sent over the network in a given time — compared to streaming service and gaming. According to Boynton, UA Wi-Fi has largely not been taxed by students running Zoom. 

Despite this, the integration and reliance on Zoom have not come without their challenges. Boynton recalled a particular case he was made aware of around Labor Day. Part of the network team installed an Intrusion Prevention System, a technology for network security, on Labor Day.

“We started getting tickets about Zoom cutting out," Boynton said. "It was weird because when I do Zoom from home if my kids are on Netflix or doing their Zoom with school … I can see jittering or freezing up. Tickets were coming in saying … that’s not what’s happening; they say they’re getting dropped. We noticed we're getting tickets saying it’s not only wireless but also wired.”

Boynton and his wireless group noticed all the tickets were coming in after Labor Day and realized the issue likely had something to do with the new IPS. It turned out Zoom was somehow clashing with the IPS, causing the call drops. 

Additionally, the Zoom program itself is not without its flaws, especially considering its sudden increase in users at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I think Zoom also got caught off-guard," Boynton said. "I don’t think they were expecting, at least in March when everybody went home, every school district, every university suddenly jumped on Zoom. I think they had a learning curve as well to try and adapt to this."

In response to the pandemic, Boynton’s wireless group collaborated with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to ensure more remote locations in the state including Navajo County had access points to UA Wi-Fi. The group also worked on adding access points around campus. 

“We added two tents in the … back area of Civil Engineering," Boynton said. "There’s an area between south hall and Cochise [Residence Hall]. There’s a basketball court there for the ROTC people to use. They turned that into a tent, and we put an access point there to cover that area. We try to cover these … hotspot areas so people can have separation.”

If students encounter difficulty with Zoom, UA Wi-Fi or just frustrations with technology support, Boynton recommended calling 24/7 IT Support.

“We start looking at it immediately and trying to figure out what’s going on,” Boynton said. “We’re trying to adapt to whatever comes up.”


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UA COVID-19 Test Tracker

Daily (5/18)
378 3 0.8%
Total (8/4)
270,694 4,359 1.6%
Includes tests since August 4, 2020
Data from https://covid19.arizona.edu/updates
Updated May 18, 2021