Like new wireless standards before it, Wi-Fi 6 promises greater speed to wireless users, and not just to those organizations with big files to move. Wi-Fi 6 also means improved performance for areas densely packed with network users. University lecture halls, dorms, commons and sports arenas all can benefit from the new Wi-Fi 6 standard.
Wi-Fi 6 introduced orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA), a radio frequency sharing scheme with a proven track record in cellular LTE networks. OFDMA allows more wireless clients to be on the air simultaneously without collision. Wi-Fi 6 also improved throughput for all channel widths versus Wi-Fi 5. Even the relatively narrow 20 megahertz and 40MHz channels likely to be found on a campus with large numbers of access points enjoy more network throughput.
These updated Wi-Fi 6 capabilities and more add to the data a wireless access point is capable of pushing through the university network.
Can My Campus Network Support Wi-Fi 6 Network Performance?
To experience a performance improvement, a university’s network must take clients’ traffic from the wireless access point across the wired network to the data they asked for and then back. If the wired network is a bottleneck, the experience for students and faculty won’t improve.
Enterprise-class Wi-Fi 6 access points often come equipped with uplinks capable of 2.5-, 5- or 10-gigabit-per-second network interfaces. Let’s consider Wi-Fi 6’s technology requirements, as well as potential bottlenecks. What might be lurking in an aging campus network that would throttle these multigigabit speeds and disappoint users, and what equipment might need to be updated in order to support these speeds?
Wi-Fi 6 requires new access points. Older Wi-Fi access points cannot be simply upgraded with software. The Wi-Fi 6 standard requires new hardware, the chips and radios inside the access point. If it’s been a few years since your university hung new access points, it’s time for an upgrade.
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Aging closet switches that uplink access points might need to be upgraded to support Wi-Fi 6. While the switches themselves don’t “speak” Wi-Fi 6, they need the capacity to carry traffic flowing in from Wi-Fi 6 uplinks. Switches with only 1Gbps uplinks are a potential bottleneck, while switches that support NBASE-T Ethernet speeds of 2.5 or 5Gbps, or even 10Gbps, are better suited for Wi-Fi 6 deployments.
While performance is top of mind when deploying Wi-Fi 6, don’t overlook power requirements. Wireless access points usually are powered via Power over Ethernet. An older PoE switch powering new Wi-Fi 6 access points might not have enough power budget to support demand.
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Between the closet switches and the rest of the network will be an interswitch link. This link must be large enough to support the bandwidth requirements of potentially several busy Wi-Fi 6 access points in use by the campus population.
How much bandwidth is enough? It depends on your traffic mix and peak traffic load. Calculate the bandwidth requirement by estimating the peak traffic load, then add plenty of spare capacity for growth and major events, like the big annual football game.
Some universities will route campus traffic through firewalls for safety and security. Firewalls are notorious network bottlenecks, so much so that modern firewall designs split the security work up across many distributed firewalls. Wi-Fi 6 could put extra strain on an aging firewall. It’s worth considering either firewall upgrades or a complete security redesign that scales in the face of increased traffic load.
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The physical wires that make up a university network can’t be taken for granted. The older the cabling installation, the less likely that cable will support the larger network capacity Wi-Fi 6 requires.
Copper cable will be especially key to verify, to be certain that the cable can support 2.5Gbps and higher speeds. Older copper cable specifications such as CAT 3 and CAT 5 are likely not good enough for modern Wi-Fi 6 access point uplink requirements. If you’ve been putting off a cabling upgrade, Wi-Fi 6 could be the catalyst that drives one — a useful investment in a campus’ future needs.
What Are My Next Steps for Campus Wi-Fi 6 Readiness?
To be sure your university campus is ready for Wi-Fi 6, you’ll need an assessment. This can be done by an internal IT team that knows the campus network and requirements of Wi-Fi 6 well, or by an independent consultancy with wireless expertise. These folks can determine the equipment that will work as it is, will work with modification or that needs to be replaced altogether.
From there, a Wi-Fi 6 deployment plan can be created to bring your campus up to the current wireless standard, offering a better experience for your university population. Don’t be intimidated at the thought of a network upgrade. While there’s a lot of work involved, that work can be done in phases over time, leading to a satisfying end result for everyone.
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