How to ensure your school gets the best out of its Wi-Fi

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28.7.2015

Wi-Fi has now become a part of modern-life. At home, we treat wireless connectivity as we do other utilities like running water and electricity. We expect ubiquity and feel frustrated when even a minute’s downtime cuts us off from the world. Indeed, 75% of people say a week without Wi-Fi would leave them grumpier than a week without coffee. However, the education sector is severely lagging behind the domestic market. A study in 2013 by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) concluded that school Wi-Fi was not fit for the 21st century. A study a year later by the same organisation found that over half of UK state schools have poor web access, which is hampering the ability to teach IT skills, despite the pressure to churn out digitally savvy pupils. A shocking 65% of primary schools and 54% of secondary schools suffer from a lack of proper Wi-Fi connectivity.

The problem worsens when parents and students (and even teachers) increasingly expect schools to offer the same level of Wi-Fi performance as available at home. And with more and more children bringing smartphones, tablets and laptops into classrooms, IT managers have a real challenge to manage and deliver a seamless, secure and high-performance wireless connection to every user on the network. The issue is limited airtime. Since Wi-Fi relies on shared and unlicensed spectrum, clients and access points must contend for available airtime to transmit data. In a high-density environment like a classroom, that’s not easy. Even well-designed wireless networks that provide good coverage with good signal strength and signal-to-noise ratio suffer from inadequate capacity. However, a densely populated network environment does not have to be a nightmare to manage. Here are some helpful tips:

Make the most of the latest tech
Make sure that all the equipment you buy is capable of delivering high performance and has intelligent features included to optimise the use of limited spectrum. Consider using the newest Wi-Fi standard 802.11ac and smart antenna technology, which are both easy to roll out and manage, delivering high performance wireless to students and teachers in high-density areas. The newest Wi-Fi standard and smart antennae offer the kind of performance and robustness that was traditionally the preserve of big companies with plenty of money. Now, though, thanks to advances in technology, the standard and smart antennae are now at an affordable price and genuinely realistic possibility for schools.

Understand the devices on your network
More students and teachers are using smartphones and tablets these days, so identify the type of radio in each device, the Wi-Fi certifications they have passed (802.11b/g/a/n), data rates, frequency bands, application throughput capabilities and more. Knowing more about the devices will help you design a network that’s fit for purpose. 

Identify bandwidth requirements
Students stream an awful lot of video, spend a lot of time on social media, share many files and listen to lots of music — all of which takes up different amounts of data. If you determine the applications that students will use, and divide these into critical and non-critical, you can determine a target application throughput for each device, and use that information when designing your network. At the same time consider what applications and websites you want students to be able to access at school, and how you can manage access. 

Use overlapping dual-band access points on low power
Using dual-band access points gives devices the maximum available throughput. Also, if you overlap two or three access points in high-density environments like classrooms, the access points can load balance without impacting the end user’s device. The power is an important consideration when overlapping. If the power is set too high, the access points can experience interference. Instead, overlap access points and set the output power to half or a quarter for the 2.4GHz access point and to half for the 5 GHz access point. 

Use a supportive vendor
Your wireless vendor shouldn’t simply provide you with different pieces of equipment like the new Wi-Fi standard and smart antennae. Your vendor should help you with all of the tips above and ensure you really do get the most for your money. Getting the most out of your Wi-Fi at school is mostly about good technology and good planning. Select a vendor that can offer you both.