Robbinsdale Area Schools in Minnesota took advantage of E-rate discounts for recent network upgrades, says Joel Mehring, Assistant Technology Director.

Mar 27 2020

How Wi-Fi 6 Is Helping Schools Stay Connected

K–12 districts are among early Wi-Fi 6 adopters, upgrading with an eye toward future networking needs.

Wireless use is growing exponentially, and that’s putting pressure on K–12 networks.

When the Robbinsdale Area Schools in Minnesota received funding to expand a classroom virtual reality pilot project, for example, the IT team suddenly needed to deliver VR-quality streaming to some 400 new wireless devices.

“Things get sprung upon us all the time,” says Dan Jagusch, a WAN/LAN specialist for the district. “We want to be ready to help the students achieve whatever their goals are.”

To be ready for future networking, including expanding calls for wireless connectivity, Robbinsdale embraced the new Wi-Fi 6 standard. Last summer, the district installed 972 new Aruba access points across 15 buildings.

With Wi-Fi 6 (the common name for the 802.11ax wireless standard), clients in dense environments could see a fourfold increase in throughput. For schools struggling to meet the bandwidth demands of an increasing number of wireless devices and applications, the new standard promises seamless connectivity.

The rising number of vendors with Wi-Fi 6 access points attests to the growing interest in this technology. In addition to Aruba, others include Cisco, CommScope and EnGenius.

Wi-Fi 6 Fosters Collaboration in High-Density Areas

At Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Indiana, officials have started the switch to Wi-Fi 6. They installed Aruba access points in a newly built school — one where the network demands will likely run high.

“This building was designed with collaboration in mind, with multiple open areas where students can work together. Wi-Fi 6 will give us reliable and fast connectivity to those large groups,” says Tom Kouns, director of infrastructure technology.

He describes the use of the more robust wireless standard as a way of future proofing the school.

“We’re seeing a lot more collaboration with students, within the classroom and within the grade level,” Kouns says. “This new building has grade levels in pods and also one big collaborative area. With all the information there, and with ours being a one-to-one environment, we have to be able to handle up to 100 students, all with devices, all in one location. That is really the benefit of Wi-Fi 6: It’s all about the density.”

The designers of the new technical standard say that’s what they were aiming for.

“The original motive for developing the standard was to meet the expanding demand for throughput, as well as the increased number of devices and applications that are being used on the network,” says Dorothy Stanley, chairwoman of the IEEE 802.11 Working Group.

“In K–12, there is huge adoption of internet access for learning applications. You have more and more devices and services and applications being deployed on the Wi-Fi infrastructure in the schools,” she says. “Their needs may be perfectly met by current systems, but it depends on the details of the deployment. If you have a school with older technology, 802.11b or 11g or 11n, they may be maxing out.”

40%

The percentage of Octorara Area School District’s Wi-Fi upgrade costs covered by E-rate

Source: Octorara Area School District

As those wireless endpoints continue to expand, “schools need a network that will provide them with a foundation to grow on, one that will meet their needs for the future,” Stanley says.

Octorara Area School District in Pennsylvania had just that kind of future proofing in mind when it made the move to Wi-Fi 6. The rural district put the new Aruba technology in place across a five-building campus in mid-2019.

“We did have pretty good coverage, but we recently went to one-to-one devices for students, and that was really stretching the bandwidth. We were constantly having issues where the devices wouldn’t connect, or only so many would connect and the others wouldn’t. The issues just kept getting worse,” says Rob Czetli, Octorara’s technology director.

While not all wireless-enabled devices can utilize Wi-Fi 6 today, Octorara is already seeing benefits.

“It’s made a huge difference for us,” Czetli says. “When a classroom begins to stream a video on the students’ personal devices, it doesn’t choke up anymore. The students can all stream together. They can take tests at the same time without issues.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Discover how E-rate improvements support faster IT upgrades.

Tackling the Money Factor of Upgrades

For schools eyeing a potential Wi-Fi upgrade, finances will likely factor in.

“You do have to allocate resources to invest in infrastructure, which is something most schools do on an ongoing basis,” Stanley says. “They have the experience and they are more than happy to give schools migration paths. They understand the financing and the money available at governmental levels.”

That includes potential federal funding for schools seeking to embrace the new Wi-Fi standard. For example, while the Octorara upgrade cost $1.3 million, 40 percent of that was covered through E-rate, Czetli says. E-rate reimbursement levels vary according to the specific deployment. Robbinsdale got an 80 percent payback from the program. “We knew the formula would be changing so we wanted to get in on the earlier cycle,” Assistant Technology Director Joel Mehring says.

In addition to financing, experts say, those looking to upgrade their Wi-Fi will also need to look at their wireless mapping as part of a migration plan. They should determine how much coverage is needed, where and for what purposes. “Any time you are doing a major upgrade, you need to think about the layout of the network as you make your plans. You need to draw your radio frequency maps based on the design on the facility,” Kouns says.

The process doesn’t change with Wi-Fi 6, he says. “You are just implementing new hardware that has more capabilities.”

Practical Reasons to Adopt Wi-Fi 6

For schools ready to make the leap to the new Wi-Fi environment, the 802.11ax standard can deliver a number of potential benefits, Stanley says. And Wi-Fi 6 offers improved spectrum management to help schools cope with high-density wireless usage.

“When you have a lot of users with varying needs for throughput, the technology effectively provides spectrum for each device according to that device’s needs. It allocates the channel to different users in smaller chunks,” she says.

Users should also see increased throughput, meaning data will flow more smoothly. “This is accomplished by an enhancement in the encoding of data over the air, effectively packing more data in a given radio signal,” Stanley says.

New power management tools may help devices consume less energy, and Wi-Fi 6 also should deliver longer range, which can be helpful for outdoor deployments.

In Robbinsdale, administrators are looking to those combined advantages to help ensure a range of future wireless implementations. This may include classroom devices such as data projectors and e-readers, as well as potential Internet of Things endpoints. They foresee wireless expansion outside the classroom as well, with wireless printers, personal devices in use by faculty and staff, and other needs that may not yet be foreseeable, Mehring says.

“We don’t want our infrastructure to be a barrier to learning,” he says. “We want our infrastructure to be able to handle the unknown.”

Photography by Chris Bohnhoff