Is the 802.11ac Standard Right for Your Campus?
The IT staff at Saint Louis University must do more than simply keep pace with the campus’s insatiable demand for broader and faster wireless networks.
The network also must perform services flawlessly, no matter where mobile users happen to be communicating.
“Students expect to bring whatever device they want with them to campus and connect to the wireless network easily and quickly,” says Kevin Proot, the university’s manager of networking and telecommunications.
But until recently, the institution had to settle for an aging wireless network based on industry standards introduced almost a decade ago. While the infrastructure offered basic coverage, it paled in comparison to the speed and reliability that today’s smartphone-toting students and professors expect.
Proot and his team made a bold move when they leapfrogged a widely used intermediate Wi-Fi standard to install Cisco Systems access points that adhere to IEEE’s new 802.11ac standard. Now, communications in high-traffic areas — residence halls and several academic buildings — are humming at speeds that rival those of many wired PCs. Moving forward, Proot says his team plans to roll out 802.11ac devices in any new or remodeled areas.
The change came just in time: Students and faculty with 802.11ac-enabled smartphones and tablets are already on campus. For those mobile envelope-pushers, 802.11ac offers theoretical data speeds of more than 1 gigabit per second, or about three times faster than the previous generation, 802.11n.
Observers say performance will surge again when the so-called second wave of 802.11ac hardware arrives later this year, boasting speeds of up to 10Gbps.
The portion of wireless
AP shipments represented by 802.11ac hardware*
SOURCE: IDC, “Worldwide Quarterly WLAN Tracker,” September 2014
While new standards and impressive specs may thrill network managers, end users remain the ultimate arbiters of success. Proot says this group so far is giving high marks to the university’s wireless leap forward.
“Our first deployment of 802.11ac was in our largest residence hall complex. In a quarterly survey, the students in this building responded positively for the first time regarding wireless connectivity and bandwidth,” he says.
A Strong Network Upgrade Can Provide Wireless Congestion Relief
Saint Louis University isn’t the only higher ed institution moving to 802.11ac. High-speed wireless networks are a high priority at Fremont, Neb.-based Midland University, a private liberal arts college that has seen its enrollment double in the last four years. That’s good news for the school, but a challenge for the IT department.
“We have to work our tails off to keep up on the technology side,” says Douglas Ullman, Midland University’s director of technology infrastructure.
The college planned an overhaul of its outdated and spotty Wi-Fi capabilities two years ago, aiming to achieve blanket coverage inside buildings and across the outdoor campus. Because the modernization came just before 802.11ac products came to market, the network relies heavily on older 802.11n equipment; however, Ullman has recently started to strategically install state-of-the-art access points in high-traffic areas to take advantage of speed and spectrum benefits. Current and future 802.11ac products use only the 5-gigahertz radio frequency, which avoids traffic delays that occur on the interference-laden 2.4GHz channel.
For Midland, running on the less-populated 5GHz spectrum is especially important because the campus is surrounded by a residential neighborhood with home networks using 2.4GHz routers.
“Our buildings on the periphery of campus are able to run on a different channel, which keeps everybody happy,” Ullman says.
Ullman’s team uses Aruba’s AirWave software to map wireless traffic patterns across campus and visualize likely choke points or obstructions that impede service. The tool showed Ullman precisely how many APs the campus network needs and where to install them, based on prevailing use rates. The maps also helped Ullman sell his modernization plan to college officials.
“I showed our board of directors and senior executives the extent of Wi-Fi coverage with our old network compared to our proposed upgrade. This helped us justify the investment,” he says. “I can talk about the technical characteristics of new wireless technology all day, but being able to show the difference communicates the benefits in a more convincing way.”
AirWave monitors ongoing performance and alerts IT when demand shifts, so the team can move or add APs or swap out older hardware for newer and faster models.
When Choosing Wi-Fi Options: Proceed With Caution
Despite the advantages of the new 802.11ac standard, budget realities remain a factor in any higher ed modernization plan. Some institutions with relatively new 802.11n networks are sticking with their current wireless infrastructure, while maintaining a close eye on how the new standard evolves.
“We made significant investments in 802.11n over the past few years, and they have life left in them,” says Eric Freeze, interim deputy technology officer and associate director for enterprise network infrastructure at the University of Kansas, which supports 28,000 students and 2,600 faculty members on five campuses. “It will be a couple years before we make significant investments in ac.”
Time is on his side for now because only a small number of mobile devices on campus currently take advantage of first-wave 802.11ac. When the time is right, Freeze says he already knows how the university should proceed.