iPads the gateway drug for college data usage

Data is in demand on college campuses, and it’s putting a strain on shared school networks. The iPad is partly to blame, according to University of Missouri-Columbia IT director Terry Robb (via The St. Louis Post-Dispatch), (s lee) but it’s mostly acting as a gateway drug for the real culprit: online video.

The report from the Dispatch describes slow or severed connections that students at the University of Missouri-Columbia experienced when coming back to classes this September. At that U.S. school, the number of wireless devices active on the network at any one time maxed out at 900 last year. Already in 2011, it’s hit 8,000 devices actively using the school’s connection at once.

The iPad is the biggest change in terms of the mobile connected-device landscape in recent years. Apple’s tablet still owns the market for that category of device, and it’s an optimal device for consuming streaming video, since it features a much larger display than smartphones, but is much simpler to turn on and hold than a cumbersome notebook computer. The iPad alone was already equal to Android’s (s goog) share of online mobile video consumption back in May, and Apple’s other devices occupy a huge slice of the pie, too.

While Apple’s iPad may have multiplied the problem, iPhones and other smartphones have already significantly affected demand for Wi-Fi on college campuses. Students now expect strong on-campus Wi-Fi as one of the perks associated with going to school–it factors into their feeling of satisfaction over what they pay in tuition. Washington University’s Andrew Orstadt, who is the associated vice chancellor for information services and technology, says the demand for high capacity should be met within reason, no matter what students end up using the bandwidth for. He told the Dispatch that since students live on campus, schools should “make sure they are doing what they want to do” with their recreation time, too.

The challenge now is for schools to be able to meet the growing demand for reliable Wi-Fi with a growing population of connected devices with increasing technical specs. Next-gen devices will be able to stream higher-quality video to and from the web, and do more than one task at a time without as much of a cost on battery life or processor power. Students two years from now could likely be streaming one full HD video to their tablets while downloading another two equally high-bandwidth files in the background.

Apple’s devices may only be fuel for the fire that is demand for college Wi-Fi Internet access, but the iPad’s success and the rise in connected-device usage seen by the University of Missouri-Columbia in the wake of its introduction is a good sign that as far as fuel goes, it’s the rocket-powering kind.