Preparing your School for 1:1 Computing

From a wireless engineer’s perspective, I’ve found that designing WiFi for schools has changed considerably over the years. In the past, networks were designed so that every classroom had WiFi coverage. And coverage is still important, but with today’s education environment you also need to consider how many devices are simultaneously connecting to an access point. A single access point might be able to provide coverage to 3 or 4 classrooms, but can it provide capacity? With 1:1 computing you could easily have over 100 devices inside 3-4 classrooms, with a single access point being the bottleneck for all those devices. So, for this reason it’s vital that you consider capacity when designing your school’s new wireless network.

Which WiFi standard is right for 1:1 Computing?

There are 2 main choices when choosing a new WiFi network today. WiFi 5 (also known as “IEEE 802.11ac Very High Throughput”) or WiFi 6 (known as “IEEE 802.11ax High Efficiency). The clue is in the name, WiFi 5 was designed for high throughput whereas WiFi 6 was design for high efficiency. Whilst WiFi 6 does actually have higher levels of throughput it’s real strength is in capacity and being able to efficiency serve many more devices. Therefore, WiFi 6 is a must for 1:1 computing.

Data Throughput.

Let’s talk about data rates for a moment and let’s consider how much data a client device actually needs. For example, if you’re watching a YouTube video here is the recommended speeds:

As a simple example if we decide to limit a classroom to 5Mbps (1080p Video) and we have 30 devices in the classroom, that is a total of 150Mbps per classroom. So, it’s important that your access point is firstly able to cope with these speeds and secondly the signal strength inside the classroom is strong enough to deliver those speeds. We work hard to ensure our wireless designs meets the requirements needed for classrooms. This often involves using several different AP models to match the level of throughput required with each area.

How many APs is too many?

A false myth is that adding more APs is the solution to a high-capacity network. A popular example of this is the cookie cutter design of 1 AP per classroom. This is not true, WiFi has a limited number of channels that can be used so you have to carefully consider channel widths, channel re-use and interference when planning your network. The solution to a high-capacity network is a good design.

The importance of AP placement.

In schools I often see APs placed on walls and whilst this works it’s not the ideal placement for most APs. APs are mostly designed to be ceiling mounted and this does have an impact on performance. Below is a sample throughput reading taken from a Meraki MR36 access point (simulated in Ekahau). The first is mounted on the ceiling and the second is mounted on the wall. As you can see it has real impact on the performance of the access point.

Ceiling Mounted AP

WiFi Throughput Wall Mounted AP

School WiFi is unique

I’m often asked to explain the difference to installing WiFi within a school than say an office and I always say the biggest differences are capacity and security. Schools need to make sure their wireless network has the capacity to deal with high-density demands whilst still delivering a superior performance that will not interrupt teaching and learning. Also, in an office environment it is common to have open SSID for guest users, with trust given to employees that this SSID will not be abused. In a school the levels of safeguarding and security must be raised to ensure the network is being used in the way it was intended. Our highly technical consultants focus on supporting our clients at every stage of a WiFi project to guarantee the WiFi performance the school needs not just for now but in the future. With WiFi 6 you can literally future proof your network for years to come so it’s a great investment for education.

I always get asked which enterprise wireless technology is the best fit for education and there’s no answer to this. That’s why we spend time with our clients to determine their exact requirements and select a product that fits their exact needs and budget using our partnerships with the world’s leading vendors. However, I have summmarised the strengths of each vendor here.

Cambium Networks
Cambium is a very affordable WiFi product for schools on a budget and offers what I think is the best value WiFi solution on the market. Cambium has a solid range of access points with a very respectable set of enterprise features and on top of that you get a free cloud controller and lifetime support.

Cisco Meraki
The Meraki Dashboard gives excellent visibility of the network and despite the vast amount of information gathered it remains one of the most intuitive and easy to use controllers on the market. What’s also really appealing about Meraki is its range of networking products include access points, switches, firewall and others. These are excellent products and can all be managed via the Meraki Dashboard.

Extreme Networks
Extreme has an exceptionally feature rich solution which gives you a huge amount of flexibility with your WiFi deployment and configuration. Extreme also has a free cloud offering for schools that don’t require the advanced feature set, so you get the best of both worlds.

If your school is planning a new wireless network and would like advice from Lee please contact us.