May 31 2024

Finding the ‘Why’ Before Undertaking a Higher Ed Network Upgrade

Before jumping to embrace the latest Wi-Fi standards, colleges and universities need to flesh out what’s motivating the transition and whether it’s really necessary.

There are countless network upgrades taking place across higher education. This is a straightforward response to an obvious and significant challenge, as networks are being forced to react to the seemingly endless demands on their capacity.

Forget the surge of interest in remote and hybrid learning options, and just think for a moment about the sheer number of devices interacting with a campus network today. Inside every student’s residence hall room, it’s not uncommon to find a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone, a TV, a video game console, wearable technology (such as a smart watch or fitness tracker) and any number of other Internet of Things devices — and students expect them all to be easily connected to the wireless network at all times. Now, multiply that by thousands of students, add in faculty with their own ultra-connected offices and lecture spaces, plus researchers connecting to colleagues all over the world and, of course, the staff members who make the entire university run, and the challenge can seem almost insurmountable.

It takes a heretofore unprecedented amount of network density and bandwidth to connect it all, and demands on educational networks will only rise in the future, something sure to be hastened by the continued integration of artificial intelligence.

And it’s not enough to simply keep everything connected. The network needs to stay connected while warding off cyberattackers and operate at a high enough speed that students who are paying tuition and other college expenses feel as if they’re getting their money’s worth.

All of this can be exhausting to even think about. But it’s not surprising that about half of higher education institutions have already made the transition to Wi-Fi 6 or 6E in recent years, and some now may even be considering the latest standard, Wi-Fi 7 — all in an effort to keep up with demand.

That said, network modernization projects remain massive undertakings with seven-figure price tags that colleges and universities hope to embark upon as rarely as possible. So, while simply jumping up to the next-highest Wi-Fi standard might be tempting, it’s not necessarily the right approach.

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Find the ‘Why’: What Is This Network Upgrade Accomplishing?

There’s no denying that the speed and density improvements offered by the latest wireless standards, Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7, are significant. Both standards introduce new frequency bands to decrease interference and allow for greater density, and each offers a significant increase in the maximum available speed, especially compared with Wi-Fi 5.

Still, Wi-Fi 5 does offer enough connectivity and speed for faculty, students and staff to accomplish basic tasks — for example, interacting with a learning management system, connecting to collaboration software or recording lectures — which should not tax the network. In some places, such as community colleges where students pay significantly less tuition, and cost and efficiency are the primary factors in decision-making, Wi-Fi 5 might be perfectly acceptable.

For universities trying to stand out from the competition and those that are asking for a significant financial commitment from their students, however, the standards for connectivity are simply going to be higher. As for anything else, expectations rise as the cost goes up, so at major public four-year institutions, R1 research universities and elite private schools, having to wait even a few seconds for a video to buffer is unacceptable.

It comes down to understanding what the college experience your institution wants to provide looks like, then choosing a Wi-Fi standard that allows that experience to happen. If you’re looking to compete for cutting-edge research grants, deliver seamless hybrid and asynchronous instruction, or allow students to learn in an immersive virtual reality space, network modernization should be near the top of the list of institutional priorities. If not, there’s less urgency to move forward with such a large capital expenditure.

RELATED: Get your higher education infrastructure AI-ready.

Consider Everything a Network Upgrade Will Entail

There’s a lot that goes into upgrading a higher education network, and along with the price tag, there is a significant amount of planning needed before any project can get off the ground.

In a perfect world, a network upgrade would start with a thorough understanding of the wireless network currently in place and the usage patterns throughout campus. A service such as CDW’s network assessment and site survey can do that and more; for example, developing a plan for the different needs of various buildings and, just as important, what existing technology can remain. That will then inform the recommended placement of access points, determine when cabling upgrades are needed and bring the right campus stakeholders to the table. Those stakeholders should include procurement teams, facilities staff and leaders on the academic side who have a deep understanding of teaching-related technology needs, among others.

Once the assessment is completed, universities should compile a shopping list and start to create policies for the new network. One way to determine those policies is by asking questions:

  • What type of identity and access management tools should be incorporated and where?
  • How, if at all, should the network be segmented?
  • How will the university gain visibility into (and manage devices connecting to) the network?
  • Is purchasing best-in-breed tools the approach needed, or is a more comprehensive platform through a single vendor a better choice?
  • Which of the latest technologies, especially those using some type of automation and artificial intelligence, should the university invest in?

Next comes planning for the upgrade itself. It will take time, and it is inevitable that some degree of network disruption will occur. Picking the right time of year to take the network (or parts of it) offline should be part of the planning process.

Eventually, network modernization will need to happen at some degree on every campus as the need continues to rise, and having an experienced technology partner with the highest level of expertise can make the difference in keeping campuses connected.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

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