Jun 16 2023

How to Configure and Test a New Wireless Network Deployment on Campus

Evaluating a new network during its deployment phase can lead to greater reliability, higher performance and easier maintenance.

With the race to deploy Wi-Fi 6 everywhere fully underway, many campus IT teams are trying to take a more organized approach to configuring, testing and qualifying networks before opening them to students, faculty and staff.

Here are some pointers to help ensure short- and long-term Wi-Fi effectiveness for both end users and IT teams.

Tune Channels and Speeds for Wi-Fi 6 Deployment

In the U.S., the old 2.4 gigahertz band has only three channels that don’t overlap: 1, 6, and 11. However, not every management console defaults to these, so it’s worth checking and locking down. For the 5GHz band (and 6GHz for Wi-Fi 6E), overlap is not a problem, but radar and dynamic frequency selection can be.

Because some of the 5GHz frequencies can overlap with airport radar, access points (APs) will detect this and automatically compensate. Check the alerts, and if there are any DFS events, block out those frequencies in the management console to streamline operations. Unless you have a specific requirement for ultra-high-speed Wi-Fi — and a low client density — it’s also best to lock channels to the default 20 megahertz width.

Speed adjustments are just as important but not as well known. Setting a minimum speed for all bands will avoid the problem of a far-away device associating with an AP at low speed and slowing down wireless for everyone else using that AP. Configure minimum speeds of 12Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 18Mbps for the 5GHz band before coverage testing.


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Customize Radio Frequency Settings to Match Density Requirements

Most campus deployments are a combination of low-density environments such as faculty offices and research areas; normal-density environments such as staff open offices and small conference rooms; and high-density environments such as larger classrooms, large meeting rooms, auditoriums and stadiums. Each of these has different requirements for AP density and their radio frequency settings.

High-density environments call for very low AP power and very strict signal-to-noise ratio requirements, while low-density areas may need higher power settings and more forgiving S/N ratios.

How you manage these settings depends on your management system, but consider standardizing and carefully documenting three different profiles (high-, medium- and low-density) and pushing to APs or AP groups as needed.

If it’s not possible to group APs based on density levels, consider marking the AP in some way in the management console, such as with a tag or density indicator in the name. If you’re providing outdoor wireless as well, a fourth profile may be appropriate for those APs. As with channel selection, do this before you complete other testing.

READ MORE: How outdoor Wi-Fi expands access for college students.

Check Your SSIDs When Configuring Higher Ed Networks

The goal in replacing an existing Wi-Fi network will be minimizing confusion and user training. However, this is still a good time to look at your service set identifiers (SSIDs) and how you handle authentication to address whether the existing configuration is meeting your needs.

Evolution of other campus services, such as reliable central authentication and requirements for wireless support of Internet of Things devices, are worth considering. Other campus security initiatives, such as zero trust, may even make distinctions between student and faculty Wi-Fi meaningless.

A new network is a good chance to challenge assumptions about how you are handling Wi-Fi SSIDs and authentication and to verify that nothing has changed.

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Test for Coverage, Roaming, Density and Bandwidth

It’s easy not to take testing seriously, especially if you are replacing an existing Wi-Fi network that works well. But skipping testing is a mistake, and it will cost you more in the long run. A test plan should include a specific list of tests to execute, exact instructions on how the tests will be executed and a precise set of expected results.

Good test plans also stress the network, so don’t be afraid to have some tests where the expected result is a connectivity failure. Documenting test results completely will ensure that the tests have been performed properly and also can help when debugging future problems, either by revealing defects in the test plan or showing that previous behavior has changed.

For example, a common Wi-Fi goal is to have VoIP or video calls operate uninterrupted while users roam between APs. Subjective approaches such as walking around looking for problems are not good test practices. Instead, a set of more precise tests using tools that simulate calls (such as iPerf3), a specific physical path to be followed and verification of roaming through the management system will provide confidence that everything is working as expected.

IN DEPTH: Why one community college adopted Microsoft Teams for phone service.

It may be difficult to cover all the APs, especially on large campuses and multifloor buildings, but multiple tests across different radio frequency settings should be used to make sure that things are working as expected. These kinds of tests can be supplemented with more informal tests.

For coverage testing, your most recent site survey should be used as a map for testing. Measure the received signal strength indicator, the S/N ratio and transmit/receive rates, then match these to what was predicted in the site survey. Consider hiring a specialized firm that can provide a site survey based on your newly deployed APs.

Wireless testing for density and bandwidth go hand in hand; bandwidth testing is most meaningful when the Wi-Fi network has many clients attached. However, they are both difficult to execute without specialized equipment or software. While testing bandwidth with a single client on an AP does deliver some important information, the test is more meaningful if multiple clients are associated. When testing density and bandwidth, select and use actual testing tools, not informal speed test web sites. Be sure to document tests, including proof through the management console, that clients are associated with the right AP and predicted and actual bandwidth.

Stress-testing the entire wireless network, which would include the wired infrastructure supporting APs, is impossible with large networks. However, when checking performance, verify that other components, such as wired network switches, backhaul links and firewalls, are all operating properly.

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Don’t forget to check other components — Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol and Domain Name System servers for Wi-Fi networks and firewalls — at the same time. If you changed network topology with the new network, the new configuration definitely needs to be validated.

In addition to pass/fail information, output of your testing should include engineering information, such as locations where your signal strength is weak or showing high levels of interference. This will be invaluable in for fine-tuning before releasing the network to end users.

Verify Management, Alerting, Logging and Mapping

Important management system alerts, such as those indicating AP outages or out-of-date firmware, should be escalated to other on-campus trouble ticket tools. This can be accomplished by linking the Wi-Fi management tool to existing tools via Simple Network Management Protocol, email, syslog or another application programming interface.

Alternatively, if integration of two systems is too difficult or not supported, duplicate the reachability monitoring and statistics download using existing tools. Keep closer tabs on wired infrastructure that supports wireless APs; each port can represent dozens or hundreds of users, so alerting on issues such as unexpected switch speed and duplex settings on AP ports is important.

DIG DEEPER: How the University of Michigan executed a network connectivity upgrade.

Wi-Fi networks are notoriously chatty when it comes to logging, often recording every client association and change in frequency. Don’t let the noisemakers overwhelm your logging systems and drown out other, more important alerts.

A final point to consider before opening up your new Wi-Fi network is to make sure that you have accurate maps of AP locations easily available. APs should be labeled clearly  when installed, and these names should be easy to find on maps and preferably maintained within the management system.

Evaluate Reporting and Feedback Tools

As with SSID checks, when it comes to overall reporting and how you handle Wi-Fi trouble tickets, everything may be working well. But launching a new Wi-Fi network is a good opportunity to zoom out and ask whether the reports you’re generating and how you’re handling user feedback are exactly what you want.

Every network, campus and IT team is different, yet budgeting time and resources to go over these areas on your new Wi-Fi network will pay off in the long run with greater reliability, higher performance and easier maintenance.

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