Technology (Enhancing + Engaging + Connecting)

Before The Ink is Dry

School cabling

PHOTO © FRANCESCO SCATENA

Wireless networks have become a requirement in teaching and learning. As soon as school districts obtain 100 percent wireless connectivity in every classroom, it quickly becomes time to develop plans for upgrading the wireless infrastructure.

Federal and state support for accelerating the implementation of wireless local area networks (WLAN) in public education has generated encouraging results in our nation’s schools, particularly over the past three years. In its 2015 infrastructure survey, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) reported, “Only one percent of school systems reported that high schools did not have wireless access compared to 13 percent for middle and 10 percent for elementary schools. This is significant progress from 2013 when school systems reported that 43 percent of high schools and 36 percent of middle schools did not have wireless connectivity in the classroom.” No doubt, the modernization of the E-rate program has been a major factor providing school districts with resources to implement WLAN infrastructure.

As part of his ConnectEd initiative announced in 2013, President Obama set a goal of Internet access of 100 megabytes per second per 1000 students for 99 percent of all students nationwide. Correctly anticipating an on-going increase in the use of wireless technology in schools, the goal stretches to one gigabyte per second by 2018. Assuming funding will be available to continuously expand the wireless environment in every classroom, district administrators must be well prepared. Planning is imperative to insure the wireless infrastructure meets the needs of the instructional program and valuable resources are not wasted.

Fundamental to the planning process is understanding that the entire connected infrastructure can be only as strong as its weakest link. A school campus may be equipped with the latest developments in routers and antenna arrays capable of transmitting data at lightning gigabyte speeds, however; they are no better than the cabling and switches they are connected to on the wired side. And of course, the entire system can be no better than the level of bandwidth being provided at the front door with the Internet access provider. From the planning perspective, it is critical to have current and accurate information for each facility mapping performance constraints within each WLAN.

Client requirements

Start with understanding user requirements. Who is connecting to the WLAN in each area of the school building? Identify the types of devices being used, i.e. desktop, laptop, notebook computers, phones, printers, etc. Understand the operations being performed that may include media streaming. What is the impact of “bring your own device” (BYOD) on the network? For many districts, and schools within districts, policies regarding BYOD can change often and potentially add a significant demand on the WLAN. For this and so many other emerging policies regarding use of wireless technology, it is essential to understand the strategic direction of the district’s instructional program in order to match infrastructure to future demand.

Wireless equipment

Most often the primary concern for implementing or upgrading wireless networks in schools boils down to coverage. Wise planners give equal thought to capacity, current and future. As national surveys indicate, while nearly all classrooms now have wireless connectivity, on-going innovations in the devices being used continually threaten to render existing WLAN infrastructures obsolete. Over half of the nation’s school districts have not upgraded to the new 802.11/ac wireless standard or dual band capability operating in the 2.4 GHz band and 5 GHz domains.

Power and Wiring to temporary school buildings

PHOTO © CLS DIGITAL ARTS

Cabling/Power

An aggressive approach for expanding and upgrading the school’s WLAN infrastructure cannot ignore similar improvements to the wired side of the network. If districts have not upgraded cabling to CAT 6 or CAT 6a, it may not be possible to achieve the gigabyte speeds expected with the WLAN. The same holds true for upgrading switches.

Another important consideration that could significantly impact the wireless plan relates to future power requirements. Existing access points (AP) may receive minimal power needs from Ethernet cabling. Future equipment will likely require direct access to an electrical outlet. Installation of additional AC outlets can add significant cost and other complexities to the overall plan.

Wireless management

Not to be overlooked, part of the planning process must include the IT Department’s capabilities to understand which areas of the WLAN within each building are getting the most use. Starting from scratch, an AP in every classroom has been the common approach for WLAN implementation planning. Once achieved, network administrators often discover too many routers create interference issues that weaken the network. As a result, planning efforts should now include a strategic placement approach in regard to the location of APs in order to balance network optimization and coverage.

Mobile classrooms

Many districts struggling with overcrowded schools are forced to install mobile units to accommodate classroom space. Administrators are compelled to provide adequate learning environments in these temporary settings, and that should include the same level of connectivity as classrooms in the permanent buildings. Wired solutions may be susceptible to lightning and other environmental factors. Trenching fiber optic cable is costly and potentially wasteful if the mobile classrooms are indeed a temporary solution. Creating or adding the mobiles to an existing WLAN is challenging. WLAN planning should take into account the number of mobile units and their proximity to permanent buildings on campus. Depending on the layout, providing a point to point wireless bridge from the main building to a limited number of mobile units may be the best route.

School Wireless Technology

PHOTO © LASZLO66

If there are a large number of mobiles, or they are located further away from the networked building, consider installing an outdoor wireless mesh router. Although it functions as a separate WLAN from the system installed in the main building, it offers several advantages, particularly in its ability to hop from one mobile classroom to another without loss of throughput.

The Future

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held each year in Las Vegas provides the industry with a glimpse of the future. This year Qualcomm rolled out an embedded system named Wi-Fi SON (self-organizing networking) which will optimize Wi-Fi performance automatically. NetGear launched a router capable of data transfer rates of 2.5 Gbps and Linksys announced a router release that will reach 5.3 Gbps. Product development for education will most certainly make use of this additional power and follow with technological innovations, many of which will become essential to the 21st century classroom.

Many facility planning issues involve moving targets. Wireless access is no exception. As technology advances continue to accelerate, plans and targets must be recalibrated to keep pace. A critical factor to keep in mind as you continue to upgrade to the latest technology is addressing any equity issues between and among your schools. All students need and deserve the educational opportunities that connectivity brings.

You cannot plan for the future expecting to install the same equipment you installed last year. It goes without saying that in order to remain current, hitting the moving target of technology upgrades is an outward-facing exercise in thoughtful anticipation. Awareness of trends is not enough; knowledge of new developments is also required.

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

Share this Page


Do you agree that education facilities should be among the top three priorities of the federal infrastructure spending package?



Subscribe to SP&M E-News

School Planning & Management's free email newsletter keeping you up-to-date and informed.

I agree to this sites Privacy Policy.