Third-level innovations offer students first-class connectivity

Irish universities and colleges need to be at the forefront of innovation if they are to succeed, and Virgin Media Business is helping fuel that in more ways than one, writes Quinton O’Reilly

30th April, 2017
Third-level innovations offer students first-class connectivity
Aidan D’Arcy, head of business division, Virgin Media
Tony Hanway, chief executive of Virgin Media, and Conor Harrison, vice-president Network Services

If universities and colleges help shape future minds, third-level also shapes how we integrate connectivity into our lives.

Thanks to an always-connected user base and the central role it plays in work and study, it is where companies such as Virgin Media can show off their capabilities, and learn new ways to approach problems.

Virgin Media’s work with third-level institutions goes through HEAnet, which provides internet connectivity and other ICT services to universities and colleges, and Virgin Media’s head of business division, Aidan D’Arcy, says it views them as more of a partnership than a customer.

“It’s very fluid,” said D’Arcy. “And we feel that our asset base gives them a unique footprint that they can take advantage of in the towns and cities that we’re in nationally.”

There are benefits to partnering with higher education institutions, one of which allows Virgin Media to experiment and test out different ideas and services. Back in 2015, it set up a fibre broadband service for NUIG’s Corrib Village, making it the first student village in the country to receive a dedicated fibre service.

Since then, it’s been building on that project with other institutions; its relationship with HEAnet has helped it develop relationships with other third-level institutions across the country like UCC, UCD, and TCD, something that reflects Virgin Media’s ethos, according to D’Arcy.

“Working with third-level institutions, they are akin to what Virgin Media is about. They’re thinkers, they’re innovators, and we like to think of ourselves as disruptive and alternative and that’s what third-level experiences is largely all about,” he said.

“When we think about what we can do directly for the colleges in their own infrastructure on campus, it’s exciting to think about what we can provide them . . . programmes like the Corrib Village student accommodation; that’s an area that we’re growing more in this year. That’s an indirect benefit to the college to have Virgin Media-type services in the accommodation as it changes the dynamic of how students can interface with the third-level institution.”

Part of its strength, according to D’Arcy, is how it is flexible enough to offer different solutions to universities and colleges to help fit their needs. Not only does it have the ability to offer fibre broadband, but also wifi hotspots – Virgin Media acquired public wifi operator Bitbuzz back in 2014 – which it has in a number of towns and cities across Ireland.

“We feel we have the infrastructure to serve that properly,” said D’Arcy. “We own the fibre in the ground, we own the ducting in that network, we don’t rely on third-parties to provide that, it’s completely within our gift which gives us the ability to tailor solutions and services and connectivity pieces for people like HEANet and directly for the colleges.

“For the third-level institutions to have that open-minded approach and that innovative, alternative approach is what those environments are all about.”

Data, data, data

While it has received a bad name in recent years thanks to security concerns, open-access wifi is now a key part of Virgin Media’s strategy, both in third-level institutions and beyond.

In the case of a campus, allowing people to connect to an open-access connection isn’t just convenient, the data it provides can help institutions gain a better idea of what demographics and people use visit and use their services.

“We work with a training facility in a public hospital at the moment, which means that students, staff, patients and visitors can all get access to free high-capacity broadband with no charge to them at all,” explains D’Arcy.

“What we can [also] do is provide an over-the-top level analytics that reports to that institution and shows them who’s logging in today, who logs in at a certain time of day and so on. It gives them the interesting footfall data which is over the top and a little bit different as opposed to just free wifi.”

That analytical data gathered from this wifi can provide a lot of useful data. In an example D’Arcy provides, a campus environment could determine a number of things such as footfall, traffic management, people management, and what times are the busiest for the campus can be used to plan ahead.

“You can use it to influence how that campus can grow [by asking questions] like do they need more bicycle stations, do they need more parking, do they need more bus routes,” said D’Arcy.

“The free public wifi part is just the benefit to the user, which is a valuable thing to provide to someone who is visiting a campus on a day. Once it’s of high quality and secure, the value . . . [of] that overlying analytics service gives them a really good snapshot of the people who are on campus, what they’re doing, when they’re there, how they get there and run the campus more efficiently. It’s not just an IT thing, it’s a facilities thing.”

Something that D’Arcy is keen to mention is that the data handled by this service is secure. Especially since new GDPR regulations will come into play in 2018, knowing that it’s handling data properly and securely is very important.

“The data that we garner is housed in a fully compliant data facility that we own and manage,” he said. “We’re compliant with data regulation laws and once somebody logs on to our service, we can guarantee that their data is secured and stored in a correct environment that we can produce the records on that as needed.”

On top of that, there are two elements to ensuring this data is secure and everything is above board. The first is ensuring that people understand what the terms and conditions of the service are so they use it responsibly, but the other is how they garner the reporting out of the produced data. Whether it’s on campus, a hospital or school, it has to make sure the data used is used correctly.

Those regulations are vital for businesses to know about, especially for SMEs those businesses that can fall into the SoHo category (Single Office, Home Office). They are usually the ones most at risk because they don’t have the resources to properly deal with these issues.

With more third-level institutions backing such businesses, ensuring they’re up to speed with the regulations and laws is vital.

“It’s 90 per cent of businesses in Ireland are SoHos or SMEs so we’re more than happy to try and explain what the consequences are for them,” said D’Arcy. A SoHo or SME doesn’t necessarily have that level of resources so it’s important for us to help all our customer base. We feel that as their connectivity partner, it’s important that we can be available to them to explain what it might mean for them and what it might mean for their business.

“We’ve got a programme internally to make sure that everyone in the business knows what GDPR is and we are setting ourselves up responsibly for that next year . . . it’s something we’re trying to educate customers about to make sure they’re GDPR-ready and we can assist them in any way that they need to be in that. It’s a pretty serious piece of legislation that’s coming down everyone’s path and everyone should be fully aware of.”

Making it mobile

Another area that Virgin Media is preparing for on a wider scale is the launch of mobile in businesses. Currently, it focuses on consumers with its latest deal offering the first five months of an unlimited calls, texts and data contract for €5 – something D’Arcy believes would appeal to the student population since it’s always connected and savvy with technology.

Universities and colleges across the country have been adjusting to this new standard for the past couple of years and it’s set to continue. Since students usually fall within the 18-25 age bracket, it’s now expected that institutions will offer online services and facilities for them to use.

“When we consider the demographic of people that are living and working within a third-level institution, the majority of them are digital natives,” he said. “While the classroom is a very important learning experience, there’s also being able to access your material and your modules online through Moodle which a lot of colleges offer to their students.

“Cloud-enabled learning which is also very interesting and the people who are consuming that data and are learning in third-level institutions have a different lifestyle and manner in how they consume data. Less library-based arguably, but more on the move on their own terms on demand. Whether they’re in student accommodation, the classroom, or library, they expect to have that on-demand access.”

That connectivity is important for a couple of reasons. Putting aside learning tools like Moodle, databases for critical texts like JSTOR and archives like CELT, a UCC project which presents texts of Irish literature and history in a searchable database.

These projects have been around for the last ten to 15 years, but the demand is now on accessing these resources anywhere at anytime, something universities and colleges want to keep up with.

“It all comes back to being a more connected society and environment and bringing that digital flavour to how they’re learning, how they’re interacting with each other,” said D’Arcy. “It’s what’s expected now [and] they’re not necessarily young people any more . . . [there’s] more than one generation of digital natives now, that they’re so well connected and they expect that connectivity all the time.”

That’s where other projects like its mobile network and wifi hotspots come into play. Virgin Media is an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator), operating on the Three network, while it’s been setting up its wifi hotspots in town centres.

‘Giving something back to the community’

D’Arcy mentions how it’s continuing to launch more wifi hotspots this year and since its customers can connect to them automatically, it ties into the demand for constant connectivity, be it for study, work or killing time.

“There’s more than one generation of digital natives now, they’re so well connected and they expect that connectivity all the time,” he said. “We feel that mobile, the high-speed wifi through the broadband products we offer and an increasing national base . . . we’ll be able to serve more customers in a regular way across the country. [We’re] feeding into that connected environment, that connected world that people are in and that students value.”

Naturally, setting up these free wifi hotspots serves a number of purposes for the company. According to D’Arcy, it can show that they can set up their own services with their own fibre – the public wifi serves as a goodwill gesture for putting up with whatever disruption occurs – and it shows off exactly what its services can do and the speeds it can achieve.

“It’s giving something back to the community,” said D’Arcy.

“As a gesture to the community, we put the free public wifi into a town or geographical area to show we’re not just putting our services in and wave goodbye. There’s a free wifi service there for the community to benefit from . . . it’ll be there for the foreseeable future in any area that we go into.

“We also do some local sponsorship with areas that we move into to see if we can engage. It’s about brand promotion, but it’s also about showing that we’re not just there to put our name on a billboard to try and sell our services. It’s about supporting local communities, people dealing with people and an element of showing off our services as well to prove what they can do, and show that they are better than the rest.”

Overall, the focus for Virgin Media in education and business is to experiment and try out new things. Taking up projects like this rarely end up with a straightforward solution, different institutions have different needs, but D’Arcy sees the trials and tribulations associated with these projects as the appeal.

“The challenges that we see in an environment like that is nearly the part about it that is most exciting,” he said. “What a lot of people would perceive as challenges and what others might see as something of a hindrance to getting the right solution out there, we see it as how we can bring value to the customer experience.

“If we can bring that Virgin Media swagger to a really blank, open-page book like Corrib Village, it gives us a lot of remit, a lot of scope. That’s our first primary objective, to get the right customer experience out there, get something that’s alternative and disruptive. There are other instances that we need to consider, like costs service level, but we’re happy to take those on.

“We’re lucky in that we’re backed by Liberty Global, our parent company. They’re happy for us to be alternative and disruptive and really leverage off what we’re good at, which is being that little bit different and disruptive.”

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