Emerging Technology

Wireless: How fast is fast?

Most of you remember well how copper cabling for data networks cycled through what seemed to be an endless loop of newer and higher-speed capabilities. Starting in the early 1990’s, whatever you put in your new building had to be ripped out and replaced. After 20 years, that has slowed down. Unfortunately, cabling manufacturers executed an effective marketing campaign that added at least five years to the cycle, wasting money. Today, everyone is installing plain vanilla CAT6, even though it does not connect a computer to the network any faster than CAT5e. While the end result is the same, a connection certified for 1Gbps of throughput, 1,000 feet of plenum rated CAT6 at distributor costs (not what you pay) costs $100 more than CAT5e.

Some of you are finding out that the same scenario is happening to your wireless networks. The access points you installed only a few years ago need to be replaced to accommodate the new high-density wireless network access points (AP) for one-to-one computing. You roll your eyes and wonder how long this cycle will last. I have no doubt your technology staff will raise their eyebrows, but I firmly believe the current round of AP meeting the IEEE 802.11ac wireless standards will be all you need for quite a number of years, with a few qualifications. Do not fall for the marketing that you need to upgrade the new 802.11ac APs any time in the near future (less than seven years).

Here is where the technology stands today. Yes, the current version of 802.11ac claims to provide 1Gbps of wireless connections. However, a wireless network does not operate like a hardwired network, and one AP maxes out one stream of wireless data around 480Mbps. However, these new APs can run more than one stream at a time, so yes, the current versions do hit 1Gbps.

The plan for the 802.11ac standard is that they will increase the size of a channel (increase the radio frequency space used by a single channel) and add some more technology, eventually pushing a single stream up to 6.7Gbps. Whoa! Running multiple channels will enable future APs to actually provide 10Gbps of throughput! Wait a minute; I have a 1Gbps copper cable connecting that AP to the hardwired data network. OMG! I will have to replace all of my wireless network copper cables with fiber!!!!

Don’t panic. Let’s stop and think this through. Most of your APs will be servicing 20 to 30 students at a time in the typical classroom. Only those units in a commons, cafeteria, auditorium or gymnasium will have large number of users. Additionally, student and teacher computing devices are very rapidly moving to a web-browser-based unit (smartphone, tablet or Chromebook). Those devices are designed to maximize wireless communications and require smaller connections that standard computers and laptops.

Let’s also look at what is happening in the marketplace. Virtually every university and college has already installed a high-density wireless network that enables two or three devices for every student; way beyond what a K-12 organization requires. They are doing those higher-capacity wireless networks using copper cables for connecting their APs. That is my point, what we have in hand today will meet your wireless needs for the foreseeable future.

Let’s take it to another level. Extreme Networks with their Entrasys wireless products is the wireless network provider for the NFL. At Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., they provide streaming content simultaneously to 70,000 users free of charge! If you have a ticket, you have access. A user can even select which camera feed they want to see live and which on they want to see for playback. Guess what? Their access points are connected to the hardwired data network using copper cables. Crazy.

We need to circle back around to an earlier wireless network article. When your technology department claims they need to update the 802.11ac APs in the district; you need to update your technology department. The largest hindrance I see in school districts to wireless computing is the lack of training on how to set up these new wireless networks within your technology department. These new wireless networks will deliver everything you need if they are properly set up. One of the problems is that schools do not pay salaries high enough to keep people who can set up these systems within their organizations.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Glenn Meeks is president of Meeks Educational Technology located in Cary, N.C. He can be reached at gmeeks@meeksgeeks.com.

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