Five key steps to upgrading your wireless network

Are you ready for the nation’s $3 billion wireless overhaul for education—or the move to online testing? Here’s what you need to know

70 percent of K-12 schools currently lack the wireless network performance to support online testing.

In early February, President Obama made a $3 billion commitment to improve internet access in the nation’s schools to meet the new technology standards required by Common Core online testing.

Approximately $2 billion of that funding is earmarked for an FCC imperative to provide high-speed broadband internet access to 15,000 schools. And private-sector companies—among them Apple, Microsoft, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon—have pledged $1 billion in free and discounted products, connectivity, and professional development.

While this is no doubt cause for celebration, it marks the beginning of a very long road to fully realizing the benefits for education. This funding could cause a tremendous leap in the quality of education for U.S. children, helping them better compete in a world economy when they enter the workforce.  However, if not properly put into place, it could result in a debacle on par with the Healthcare.gov rollout—and a squandering of educational opportunities for the country’s students.

Implementation of wireless infrastructure to support online testing will be a significant hurdle, as 70 percent of K-12 schools currently lack the wireless network performance or wired broadband internet connectivity needed to make this a success, according to EducationSuperhighway.org. Compounding the problem is a new wireless standard, 802.11ac, which should be considered as part of any new infrastructure upgrade. Combined, these challenges are giving many school IT personnel a serious headache.

Here are five key steps that school administrators must take when building out their wireless networks.

1. Ensure proper application performance.

Schools need to ensure optimal wireless performance by controlling traffic and application accessibility at the edge of the network, where students connect—not at the internet gateway, where the network itself connects.

2. Plan for the right density of devices.

With students being given mobile devices or bringing them from home, it’s critical to understand how many students will be connected to any wireless network to ensure a proper capacity design. Underestimate the number of access points required, and your connections will slow down or even drop—causing the learning experience to suffer.

3. Anticipate peak usage.

Wireless networks can’t properly be configured with an average number of users and devices in mind. Schools need to determine the maximum, or peak, load that the network will encounter and ensure that there is sufficient bandwidth both at the access layer (where students are connected to the network) and during testing (when the maximum possible number of devices are accessing the network at once).

4. Understand the changing landscape.

School leaders need to think beyond the current technology standards and specifications and make investments that will ensure their classrooms will continue to have sustained high performance and reliable connectivity as new wireless devices and applications are introduced.

IT personnel and other decision-makers must consider that most wireless devices in use now do not support the new standard of 802.11ac. A hybrid wireless network will be needed to support both current devices and the newer, faster devices that inevitably will become commonplace over the coming months and years. What decision makers should look for is Wi-Fi capability across the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands (the new 802.11ac standard operates only in the 5 GHz band), as this will give students reliable Wi-Fi no matter what their devices support.

5. Future-proof for new WLAN standards.

The new Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac, is about three to fifteen times faster than the previous standard, 802.11n. Schools will need to develop and implement long-term plans for upgrading their wireless network infrastructure and end-user devices to support 802.11ac when it becomes commonplace.

Finding the answer to these issues is daunting, but it can be accomplished when school IT departments and decision-makers, equipment vendors, technology integrators, and government agencies work together. Sharing resources and understanding the scope of demand for ever-higher bandwidth will give all participants the information they’ll need to devise their own unique solutions to meet the needs of each school.

President Obama, the FCC, and the private sector have made a $3 billion promise to America’s students, and technology is available to deliver on that promise. Now it’s up to the many stakeholders to make the promise a reality.

Kowshik Bhat is the director of product marketing for Xirrus Inc., a provider of Wi-Fi technology to the nation’s schools.

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