May 17 2024

How Colleges and Universities Can Benefit from a Network Assessment

Wi-Fi 6E provides higher throughput to higher education institutions, but it’s important to assess the current state of network infrastructure before upgrading.

Fast, reliable networks are the backbone of many higher education technology initiatives. Networks support traditional institutional workflows in addition to newer remote work infrastructure, teaching and learning tools used for remote and hybrid learning, research initiatives and the breadth of Internet of Things tools now on campus.

As more colleges and universities migrate to the cloud, having a strong network becomes even more important. Many higher education IT teams need help figuring out how to bridge the gap from on-premises storage to the cloud amid their digital transformation journeys.

Institutions are also increasingly focused on software-defined networks and automation to create efficiencies to ease IT staff and skills shortages.

Network modernization will be crucial for higher education as network load and complexities increase. Upgrading to a modern wireless standard such as Wi-Fi 6E or Wi-Fi 7 can better support technology initiatives. However, it’s important that institutions have a clear picture of their existing network ecosystem before upgrading. That’s where a network assessment comes in.

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The Benefits of Wi-Fi 6E for Higher Education

Wi-Fi 6E provides several benefits for colleges and universities. According to Luke Schiavone, CDW solution architect for networking, Wi-Fi 6E provides four times the throughput of Wi-Fi 5 (or 802.11ac). It also supports higher density, so access points can serve more people and more devices in the classroom, dorm room, laboratory and myriad communal settings. With Wi-Fi 6E, the APs are more power-efficient, meaning they don’t need to draw as much power from the switches.

“Switching to Wi-Fi 6E can provide more coverage and help the organization better future proof its networks because it’s a newer technology,” says Schiavone.

Wi-Fi 6E includes stronger security measures. The wireless standard has implemented WPA3, a security protocol with more robust authentication than previous versions.

RELATED: Get your higher education infrastructure AI-ready.

Networking Modernization Considerations for Higher Education

Higher education institutions often have long networking refresh cycles, so when they do upgrade to the latest wireless standard, they expect the modernized infrastructure to support the college for several years.

“More times than not, you’re going to see corporations at the cutting edge because they have the money, flexibility and agility to jump into a new standard, whereas organizations that are getting tax dollars are going to wait until everything’s settled and other people have done it. They don’t want to be the first,” says Schiavone.

He also points out that many higher education institutions prefer to wait until a new Wi-Fi iteration is ratified. Vendors may do things differently, and there could be a lack of interoperability before ratification occurs. Wi-Fi 6E has been ratified, so newer devices are likely compatible with the standard. However, a university’s existing laptops, phones and connected devices may or may not be able to operate with Wi-Fi 6E, says Schiavone. It’s important that organizations ensure their devices are compatible with the standard before upgrading.

“As it gets ratified and we move further down the road, you’re going to be able to use Wi-Fi 6E with more devices,” says Schiavone.

In addition to device compatibility, colleges need to make sure their networking infrastructure will also support Wi-Fi 6E. Newer APs will have two connections so they can make full use of the expanded throughput. But a university with older network infrastructure may have only one wire available from each AP, meaning they may have to replace the AP with a newer one if they want to fully utilize Wi-Fi 6E’s capabilities.

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Prepare for Networking Modernization with Assessments

Before starting any network upgrades, higher education institutions should conduct a network assessment. Working with a technology partner such as CDW gives organizations access to networking experts who can help them assess their network’s current condition and create a modernization roadmap to achieve their desired end state.

An assessment can help higher education IT teams determine if the upgrade requires any wiring changes or new AP placement and if there are any existing dead spots on the site.

“The organization will be able to make a more informed decision about where they are and where they want to get to,” says Schiavone. “We can take them through that journey and help them decide whether they’ll jump in with both feet or do this modernization in sections. We help with strategy, planning and budgeting.”

Some institutions may decide to add APs wherever they want coverage as they grow over the years. However, this can lead to gaps in coverage. Schiavone recommends that higher education institutions work with a CDW engineer to do a validation survey and create a predictive heat map, which can anticipate coverage and ensure that the campus has 100 percent utilization.

An assessment should be done as early as possible in the networking modernization process. An institution should have a strong understand of what’s going on in their own network before the college or university spends time and money on upgrades. A partner like CDW can help map out a modernization strategy, whether wired or wireless, and determine which equipment is needed to enable Wi-Fi 6E connectivity.

Working alone can be a challenge for institutions that don’t have experience with network upgrades. They can run into issues that they might otherwise have avoided if they’d connected with a technology partner. The potential consequences, such as outages or network vulnerabilities, can be painful.

“At CDW we talk to engineers to figure out what those gotchas are so we can bring the customer through this process with as little pain as possible to make it more successful,” says Schiavone. “These upgrades are something that organizations will have to deal with sooner or later, and an assessment will absolutely help them to navigate those waters more smoothly. It will make for an easier transition than trying to figure it out all on their own.”

UP NEXT: What is AI-native networking, and what can it do for higher ed institutions?

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