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School Wi-Fi speeds and needs will vary, but networks can tell you what they need based on specific metrics and data.

Demystifying network speed: Measuring true Wi-Fi and wired network needs

School Wi-Fi networks can tell you what they need based on specific metrics and data

Key points:

There’s no question that educational institutions require reliable, high-speed connectivity. We’re all in agreement there. The question that arises is: How fast is fast enough?

There are a number of misconceptions surrounding the answer. Let’s demystify these one by one. Then we can talk about how to accurately measure and predict each networks’ needs.

Misconception one: Faster is always better

Here’s the truth–the fastest network speed often isn’t necessary or cost-effective. While our Wi-Fi standards offer incredibly fast speeds (1.3 Gbps for Wi-Fi 5 and 9.6 Gbps for Wi-Fi6 and 6E), these speeds are a maximum theoretical speed. They aren’t intended for daily, real-world use by every school.

This is more than fine because individual users don’t need those speeds. Real-world situations don’t need those speeds. Even video streaming applications using 4K resolution only have recommended speeds of 15 Mbps or higher. Wi-Fi 5’s 1.3 Gbps equals 1300 Mbps.

So then why do Wi-Fi standards keep evolving to offer faster speeds? This is because our networks are growing more congested. The maximum speed (upload and download) offered by your network plan is shared amongst every device. The faster devices can communicate, the faster they jump off the airwaves and let another device take their place.

No individual device or application needs 1.3 Gbps, but sharing that much speed amongst 1,000 devices does make a difference. This is why it’s important to know how many devices you have, how many of them are used at the same time, and what max speeds are recommended for their optimal use. This will help you determine the upload and download speeds needed on your network.

One final tip: Often, when it comes to high-speed requirements, people bring up AR and VR applications. It’s true that sometimes these devices, depending on their utilization, have requirements of 200 to even 5,000 Mbps. However, schools aren’t inundated with these applications at this moment in time.

Misconception two: Bigger is always better

Bandwidth is a capacity measurement for your network. Each device that connects takes up a piece of that bandwidth. If you have more devices than your bandwidth can support, you will run into problems. These can include:

  • Problems accessing the network
  • Poor application performance

Because of this, when network performance is slow, it’s common for people to assume a lack of bandwidth is the problem. However, this isn’t always the case. There can be other root causes for these performance issues. Investing in more bandwidth when you don’t need it will lead you to waste money on an upgrade that doesn’t bring with it a positive ROI.

What do you do? First, you need an accurate understanding of your bandwidth needs. Your service provider can help with this. The recommendation is often for 1-2 Mbps of bandwidth per user.

Next, you need a way to analyze network performance and identify the root cause of issues. This will tell you right away if bandwidth is a problem, or if you have another issue. There are several tools and solutions on the market that can help.

Misconception three: One size fits all

Every educational institution needs wired and Wi-Fi networks, but they don’t all need the exact same network. Network needs differ based on several factors, including, but not limited to, school size, curriculum focus (are students often streaming video?), and the student-to-device ratio.

Schools need both constant real-time analytics and long-term performance trends to understand the user experience. Is it good or bad, and could it be better? Detailed analytics provide the information every school needs in order to make efficient and budget-friendly network decisions.

Tips for accurately measuring your school’s network needs

Conduct a comprehensive network assessment

You need to know where you stand before you can make useful plans. Take three months to evaluate current network usage and performance. Work with a tool that will automatically capture end user experience metrics during that time so that you know if your network is meeting the needs of your staff and students.

Once you have the data, determine if performance is consistently optimal. If it isn’t, is a lack of speed or bandwidth the problem?

Consider peak usage times

The reason I suggest gathering network analytics for three months is to provide an accurate representation of network performance during down times and peak utilization. Depending on your institution, peak times could be during exams, conferences, or even sporting events.

While peak usage might only happen three or four times a year, you need to know that your network speed is sufficient for those times, and not just for everyday use.

Plan for future growth

All networks need to be scalable and future proofed.

Your network capabilities might optimally support your users currently, but if you have plans to increase the student population or the number or types of devices and applications on the network in a few years, it’s time to dig deeper.

What impact will that have on performance? Does your network have the bandwidth and speed available to support that?

Futureproofing within a budget is impossible without detailed analytics. Network upgrades aren’t cheap. You want to upgrade incrementally, only as needed, to meet specific needs. With the right data, you know what your problems are, what they aren’t, and how to resolve them and avoid them in the future.

Listen to your network

There is a time and place for insanely fast, high-speed networks. There are also plenty of times and places for slower speeds. Look through the metrics and numbers available from your network, and let it tell you what it needs. This way you can boost performance and user satisfaction, all while saving money.

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