WiFi for education

Below we discuss a number of issues requiring particular treatment for educational establishments such as schools colleges and universities. We also consider issues relevant to student accommodation.

High density of users
The most visually obvious issue is the high density of users – mostly students and staff. Many users will need to connect to a wireless network in a relatively small area. Special purpose access points exist to handle such high density deployments, but they have their own limitations and are not always appropriate. If they are not appropriate careful planning is required to make efficient use of the available radio spectrum. For example, and perhaps counterintuitively, shorter range wireless can be helpful because it allows radio spectrum to be reused nearer than would otherwise be the case. Also access points with sufficient processing power to manage large numbers of concurrent connections are needed. On that point it is important to know what is practically possible rather than what is theoretically possible or claimed.
Fair access
Fairness of wireless access in academic environments is often not the same as in commercial settings. For example, a hotel may consider it fair that its guests have differential service levels based in how much they pay. Students usually have much more limited finances. So it might be considered unfair to allow better access to students able to pay more for wireless access in student accommodation. Fairness can also be bound up with other issues such as particular educational needs and difficult environments. As a case in point wireless equipment for outdoor settings is typically more expensive for the same features. So it would cost more per head to provide similar levels of wireless access outside. Is this a fair use of a budget that cannot meet all requirements? Also consider, is it fair to extend free access to visitors and members of the public that ultimately pay for the system through taxation and fees? So access policy is often a more complex picture for fair access in education.
Usage spikes
It is not uncommon for a whole class to be encouraged to access information at the same time. As a result the data throughput can leap from nearly nothing to very high loads in a short space of time. This is atypical in a business setting where each user commonly controls their data access independently. Configuring ‘quality of service’ functionality is therefore more important in education. This controls prioritisation of data when the inevitable throughput limit is reached to make that usage spike seem less problematic. For example, web access can be prioritised over other forms of network traffic as this would enable classes to make better use of their time instead of waiting for activities such as file backup email and database replication.
High throughput
The classic throughput problem is streaming video – which is not unheard of in academic environments. This type of usage has two important effects. Firstly it puts heavy loads on access points to smoothly exchange data with user devices. People are usually quite intolerant of any interruptions in video. Secondly the aggregated bandwidth requirement of multiple users streaming video can be very high, so the supporting wired network usually needs to be of a higher than normal specification. All equipment has design limitations, in this case it is important to select equipment with a high throughput specification. As this can be quite expensive it may be necessary to vary the equipment across a site according to expected usage patterns with the aim of providing a cost effective service.
Redundancy
Increasingly wireless access is a critical resource in education as it provides greater freedom to access information in a busy mobile environment. This is more common in an educational setting than the typically less mobile and crowded commercial spaces. If wireless access is deemed critical enough a wireless network can be designed with enough redundancy so that in the event of access point failure neighbouring access points can step-up their range to make good the lost coverage. Naturally this degree of over engineering is more expensive and so can be limited to where it is most critical.
Mobile access
Students and staff are itinerant, moving often between rooms. This is much less common in other kinds of operation. If continuous access is required a wireless network can be biased toward high mobility. Recently it has become possible to configure networks with mixed models, with parts focused on high mobility and parts focused on efficient use of spectrum. High mobility usage is still a lesser part of wireless network use, but it is growing as more uses are found for it. Devices like spectacles with built in displays able to continuously stream information to the wearer will inevitably make mobile access increasingly important and common.