A school system in North Carolina recently put out an RFP (request for proposal) for a district wide wireless LAN system. They put together a very well structured list of questions broken down into category headings. They had a section specifically called “wireless experience”, which I thought was a great choice of words. They had clearly thought about what they were trying to accomplish with the wireless deployment even down to the user experience.
It got me thinking:
- What must a school wireless network have to provide the best "wireless experience" for the users? (and if they don't have it, what disaster might ensue?)
Of course there are a number of things to discuss about the technical features of the a system, band steering, wireless security, directory services integration, etc. But given the trends in education technology today;
There are two things school wireless networks absolutely must have:
1) Multimedia Capability- It must be ready for all kinds of Multimedia applications. Teachers more and more are using rich multimedia sources for collaboration and learning.
One of our clients (a forward- thinking charter school) has students create video blogs of field trips and class projects to post online. They rely heavily on the wireless infrastructure to upload video as well as stream it from YouTube.
Some universities are now streaming their campus TV channels using IPTV over their campus Wi-Fi networks. And the list of multimedia applications hitting the network will only grow from here.
The Risk: Ever heard a teacher passionately explain how painful it is to stand in front of a high school class waiting for a YouTube Video to load? In order to avoid student and teacher backlash, wireless networks need to be ready for multimedia.
2) High Density User Load Balancing- The system must be built for High Density user groups and be able to load balance users between access points.
K-12 schools are getting funding via 1:1 laptop initiatives which means every student has or will have a laptop. In higher education it would unheard-of for a college student to come to school without a laptop or tablet PC.
(We’ve actually seen a trend of 3-5 wifi-enabled devices per college student.) This means that in areas like cafeterias, classrooms, and large lecture halls, the network must be designed to handle in some cases hundreds of users at a time.
The Risk: Imagine students taking a test or quiz online and being dropped off the wireless system before hitting submit…..not a great conversation for the IT staff to be a part of.
A mistake many wireless designers make is that they plan the system using the “broadcast” approach. That is to say that they figure out how much space a radio on an access point will cover and base their design on coverage only.
Other than selection of the wrong wireless system components, this is the biggest reason users experience issues. When there are only a few users, the system will work fine (because it has coverage), but as more and more users connect, the system breaks down.
As school wireless networks continue to take on users and multimedia traffic, wireless network design will become more and more critical to avoid these issues.