For those of us who went to school during or around the age of the BBC Micro or the Archimedes, the words “school network” evoke a room full of beige boxes and cables. But computer years, just like dog years, pass at their own pace. BYOD-enabled Wi-Fi school networks are shaping the age of a more dynamic approach to intellectual pursuits, a closer match (or perhaps a better image?) of this generation’s educational needs.
The requirements of educational institutions are unique, and the networking industry has had a hard time meeting them. A school is nothing like a bank. Students and teachers are nothing like corporate employees. And their requirements go beyond the comfortable realm of technical requirements.
More than in any other field, the success of building a Wi-Fi network for a school depends on defining and understanding requirements – technical and commercial as well as social and interpersonal.
How do we go about building this understanding? We start from the first principles: from the educational benefits that faster, frictionless network access can provide, and the technical and non-technical issues that have to be solved before those benefits can be delivered.
Wi-Fi in Schools: Benefits and Challenges
Deploying Wi-Fi networks in schools and other educational institutions in the UK has not been a bump-free road. But experts from both sides of the fence – industry and education – have struggled to find options, because there are great opportunities in enabling fast, stable Wi-Fi access for students, staff and management:
A wireless networking infrastructure is not all opportunity and no risk. Some of the requirements that are particularly important for educational institutions include:
Can these requirements be met? Absolutely – and it’s not just something that we say because otherwise this would be a very gloomy post.
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Here’s why we think there are convincing solutions to these problems.
Coverage and Performance 101
We’ll start with coverage and performance because these parameters deliver the answer to the most the most pressing questions that any networking project faces: can I get the type of coverage and performance that I need, and with what? What devices do I need, how many, and where do we put them?
Let’s start with the first part: what kind of coverage and performance should you expect?
There are several Wi-Fi networking standards currently in use. The ones you should be most interested in are. in order of age, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac. There are others, too, and these standard differ in a lot of ways.
802.11 b, g and n are widely supported – you’ll be hard pressed to find a Wi-Fi capable device from this century that doesn’t support at least one of them (and this is not a hyperbola: 802.11b came out in 1999, and 802.11g came out in 2003). Most devices newer than 2010 are 802.11n-capable, too.
Typical indoor ranges for a single access point are in the region of 100 feet for 802.11b and g, and 200 feet for 802.11n. 802.11b and g are fairly slow (up to 11 Mbps and 54 Mbps, respectively), but they are likely to be used by legacy equipment anyway. 802.11n, which enables speeds of up to 600 Mbps, is sufficient for most office and teaching activities.
802.11ac is a newer, but widely-supported standard. Virtually every device newer than 2013-2014 supports it. It enables speeds of up to 1 Gbps, although over shorter ranges (80-90 feet).
Of course, a given area is not covered by a single access point. One Wi-Fi router may be enough for a small office, but there are lecture theatres larger than what an 802.11ac access point can cover.
This brings us to our second set of questions: how many APs do we need, and where do we put them?
Coverage and Performance 102
Network coverage is a flaky subject. We tend to think of it only in terms of signal strength. Network coverage is basically a fancy way of saying “this is how far I can go before I see no bars on my phone”.
But this is not a complete picture. Wireless access points have a fixed bandwidth, and a fixed number of simultaneous clients that they can support. A “strong” connection can still be slow in a crowded area, or you may see frequent disconnects.
To make matters worse, RF signal propagation is not too straightforward, either. Signal quality depends on building shape and material, on the placement of clients and wireless access points, and on the shape and material of the obstacles between them. It is not a function of distance alone.
So how do we know where to place Wi-Fi access points, and how many of them are needed?
There is a single good answer: through an RF survey.
An RF survey (sometimes called a Wi-Fi or wireless survey) is a procedure we carry out to map how RF signals propagate and decay throughout your premises.
This provides one critical half of the puzzle. The other critical half is an understanding of how each area is used, and by how many people.
This second half of the puzzle tells us what kind of coverage is needed, in quantitative terms – what signal strength, for how many devices. The former half tells us what equipment we need to place (and where) in order to meet these requirements.
The RF survey is critical to successfully deploying a Wi-Fi network in a reasonable timeframe.
For a small office, an educated guess about where to place a Wi-Fi access point is enough.
But that won’t cut it for a large campuses and buildings with classrooms, labs and offices. In such an environment, an educated guess will give you fast delivery, followed by months of shuffling routers around, purchasing new access points, and running yet another cable every day.
The access points are the tip of the Wi-Fi network iceberg, but in most cases they are not all you need. Clients connect to the Wi-Fi network via Wi-Fi access points and routers, but these have to be connected to your core network and to the Internet.
This part of the infrastructure is wired, so you still need to run some cables. However, installing or upgrading Wi-Fi access points typically doesn’t affect existing networking gear. You may need to purchase additional switching equipment if you are expanding your network, but any equipment that you already have can usually stay. Assuming, of course, that you still need it.
One of the main concerns when it comes to Wi-Fi networks and BYOD is content filtering. Can it still be done efficiently when everyone is using their own devices, and accessing the same network?
The problem is complicated by the need for flexible filtering. On one hand, it is important to be able to restrict access to unsafe content on school grounds. On the other hand, an inflexible access control system, which forbids access to legitimate educational content, can render a school’s network useless for many educational activities.
The good news? This late in the 21st century, content filtering is largely software-controlled. Who can access what can be decided ad-hoc based on their access credentials, regardless of what device they entered them on. If your school has a network – wired or wireless – that was deployed anywhere in the last fifteen years, chances are that’s how it’s done there as well.
The bad news is that some systems (especially ones that have been in place for a long time) can use a mix of access criteria based on credentials and access criteria based on location. For example, they filter content for computers in the library, or the cafeteria, regardless of who’s accessing them.
Migrating such a system to a wireless infrastructure requires some additional work, but it can be done. It’s not useless work, either: a more idiomatic approach to content filtering and access control will also make your system easier (and cheaper) to manage, and more flexible.
Closely related to the problem of controlling access to external content is the problem of controlling access to internal content.
UK law makes schools responsible for the security of confidential and personal data. Even when it’s not a matter of legality, some documents and records need to be made available even to some persons.
Having this kind of data accessible over the network is very useful. But having it accessible over the same network that everyone uses can be risky.
The use of content and document management systems has made the problem of electronic access control largely software-driven as well. However, a sound security policy can (and often does) involve maintaining separate networks for handling sensible data.
Good Wi-Fi network design can help you implement such a security policy. At the very least, you should ensure that the design and deployment of your Wi-Fi network follows your security policy.
Long-Term Budgeting and Maintenance
The budgeting requirements of educational institutions have a long history of baffling the networking industry.
Wi-Fi equipment is so widely available that the problem is not one of budget size. Most schools in the UK can afford the infrastructure they need. The problem is one of predictability and structure.
The formal structure of educational management, and the diversity of its stakeholders, make ulterior modifications to a project difficult to arrange, even if the funds are available.
In a very undiplomatic idiom, this means it’s important to do things right the first time.
This isn’t just posturing. Educational activities aren’t quite like business activities. You can’t just politely ask a teacher to use another classroom the way a maintenance crew politely asks a manager to use another meeting room while they check a router.
And this applies throughout a network’s lifetime, not just during the first two or three weeks after it’s commissioned, when tugging at a cable here and there is understandable up to a point.
Predictability in financing and maintenance go hand in hand. They stem from a solid analysis phase that begins with the RF survey and is finalized with a detailed breakdown of equipment and installation steps.
Controlling costs is a two-pronged matter. There is a wide selection of Wi-Fi equipment on the market, and it’s unlikely that you need the most expensive of it.
However, past a certain point, compromising on upfront costs introduces a risk in terms of long-term costs. In this field, quality doesn’t only buy you performance – it also buys you a more predictable long-term expense plan, and less disruptive maintenance services.
Integration: Challenges and Opportunities
Until not so long ago, we were used to thinking about the school’s computer network as an auxiliary tool. We thought of it as infrastructure to some degree, but not the way whiteboards and sports grounds are infrastructure.
This is no longer the case anymore, especially in universities. For many educational institutions in the UK, the network is an essential part of the teaching and administrative infrastructure.
It’s a challenging situation. Schools have plenty of old, but perfectly working systems that need to be integrated in the same network that also has to cater to young adults, teenagers and nine year-old children.
The good news is that Wi-Fi networking is a well-understood technology that often complements other types of networks, rather than replacing them. Virtually any equipment you have can be bridged to a wireless network.
A well-designed Wi-Fi network can be more than a more accessible version of its wired predecessor. It opens completely new avenues, such as:
Making the most out of your investment is more than just staying within budget. Wi-Fi is a very flexible technology – and it gets you a very flexible infrastructure.
Few voices in the industry recognize how uniquely challenging Wi-Fi school networks are. At first sight, a school Wi-Fi network is like an enterprise network, except most of its users are teenagers.
But this is hardly an accurate description. School Wi-Fi networks tend to have more diverse client devices and a more diverse user base, and pose unique security challenges, with a unique social dimension to them.
ACCL has been installing Wi-Fi networks in London schools for more than a decade and offering networking services for more than two. We are very familiar with all the challenges that today’s UK schools face and we’re happy to do our part in helping you deal with some of them. Let’s talk about your on-budget and highly performing school Wi-Fi network!