Wrapping up the third and final part of our series (sorry it has taken so long), we wanted to see what really powers Buffalo Connect — to see if it really is a limited network, or if the potential is just locked down and the speeds are capped. We decided that a good way to do this would be to test the speeds at the University at Buffalo's campuses and compare them to what we could get via Buffalo Connect.
It turns out that it was a serendipitous time to test out UB's network, as they are in the process of upgrading their WiFi infrastructure on all three campuses (North, South, and Medical). They're calling this project "WiFi Boost". Some of the buildings have been upgraded and some haven't. That means we could take a walk through campus and experience both the pre and post-boost networks.
The upgrade consists of 8000 new access points to blanket the campuses and utilize the wireless 802.11 AC standard. As we discussed in our first blog post, this new standard doesn't necessarily increase data transfer speed through any one connection, so much as it allows for multiple connections across longer distances. This creates additional pathways to move data much more rapidly to more devices. A good analogy is to imagine having four chefs cooking for one hundred people at the same time, as opposed to having just one chef. Each meal will get done in the same amount of time per chef, but because there are multiple chefs working they don't have to wait for previous people in line.
By adopting this standard, UB claims that users can expect speeds that are nearly three times as fast as the old network. That's nothing to scoff at, for sure.
When we first logged into the network, we had to agree to the Terms and Conditions:
These terms are very similar to the terms of service (TOS) associated with Buffalo Connect that we referenced in our first blog post, with one distinct difference: UB Guest's terms and conditions state, "Guest access [...] is intended for legal non-commercial usage", whereas Buffalo Connect's TOS states that "using the Service for any commercial purpose is prohibited."
While we're not lawyers here, having a network that is "intended for non-commercial usage" versus a network that prohibits commercial use is interesting, especially in light of how Buffalo Connect was originally presented back in July of 2015:
“If downtown Buffalo is going to be a thriving engine of opportunity for all city residents, we must find ways to support the entrepreneurs who are driving technological advances and creating jobs,” said Mayor Byron Brown. “By providing city residents, members of the business community and visitors with free public Wi-Fi, we will continue to attract more people and business to downtown Main Street, while making targeted investments to improve our city’s wireless infrastructure.”
Buffalo Connect was first touted as something that would be good for everyone — businesses, residents, and visitors to downtown alike. But if commercial usage is prohibited on the Buffalo Connect network, how is that good for business? Unfortunately, as is evidenced by UB's network TOS, this prohibition against commercial use appears to be very intentional.
So what did we find once we actually got down to testing? After authenticating in the pre-boost area of Capen Hall, we got the following results:
Already we began to see speeds over 10 times as fast as what we saw on Buffalo Connect, which had state-of-the-art infrastructure deployed and installed.
After that test, we ambled towards Baldy and Lockwood Library, snapping some pictures of the routers that UB has put in place along the way.
These appear to be Aruba Networks 210 or 220 Series routers. The 210 costs around $900 each, and the 220 costs about $1,150. It is interesting to note that these are indoor antennas. The outdoor antennas probably cost a fair bit more. With nearly 8000 routers there was probably a significant bulk discount on the purchase — though we can only speculate as to what that was (if we had to guess, we might peg it at around $8 million).
When we reached Baldy Hall and the Lockwood Library, we experienced significant increases on the post-boost network. Using our mobile devices, for instance:
Wirelessly on our laptop, this is what we found:
The download speed is 100x faster than Buffalo Connect. And again, that is still only wireless.
Let's contemplate that for a moment: a file that takes 40 seconds to download on this publicly accessible guest network at UB would take over an hour to download on Buffalo Connect. There are definitely commercial ramifications to that. If all businesses and individuals downtown could potentially access these kinds of speeds, or even faster, that would provide a serious boost — as the mayor explicitly originally intended — to economic development in the perennially struggling downtown region.
The bottom line to all this is that, as a result of UB's investment in its network assets, UB Connect can attain speeds of well over 250Mbps downstream and at least 150Mbps, while Buffalo Connect has the same potential, but is capped at 2Mbps down and 2Mbps up.
Despite what we might hear, bandwidth really isn't the issue. It is not a scarce resource. The technology was available and in place at UB almost a decade ago for wired connections. When the university connected its downtown campus to its campuses in University Heights and Amherst back in 2004, it spent $975,000 for a 12-mile cable that provided gigabit speeds. As we found when we first arrived, UB's pre-boost network, on much older technological infrastructure, still delivered speeds roughly 10 times greater than what Buffalo Connect currently provides.
We touch upon these points not necessarily to blame or shame, but rather to highlight the difference between the level of internet service that we in Western New York have come to expect versus what is possible.
Buffalonians are seeing potential in our City again. And we see that potential too — especially in the realm of broadband. That's what inspires us at City of Light 2.0 to continue our push; we see how much of a boon this can be for the whole community, and how it can address such a wide range of issues, from economic development, to the digital divide, to security, to education.
All of us who understand this need to share our knowledge of the potential of fiber with the wider community until no one contemplates accepting inadequate speeds. That's what we want in this situation: no one willing to accept 2 megabits down and 2 megabits up. We would love to see M&T, UB, and City Hall unleash the full potential of the Buffalo Connect network and make it the boon to the downtown city core that it very much could be.