Aug 02 2023

How to Design Your K-12 School’s Wi-Fi 6 Upgrade for Network Nirvana

When upgrading Wi-Fi, keep three best practices in mind to ensure faster downloads, quicker uploads and higher density.

If you’re planning to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E, you might think your network design should be identical to your Wi-Fi 5 (or earlier) setup, but that’s not exactly true. While you should definitely start with your existing network as a base for Wi-Fi planning, to really take advantage of Wi-Fi 6, you must consider three key network design best practices: proper access point positioning, proper AP selection and matched infrastructure support.

What You Should Know About Planning for Wi-Fi 6

When it comes to Wi-Fi, unless you’ve just built a new school, you’re going to be replacing an existing network. While Wi-Fi 6 design is slightly different than Wi-Fi 5, you can learn an enormous amount studying what’s already installed — so save money and skip the site survey. You should always start with your current AP placement as your proposed network layout.



Consider How Access Points Can Affect Wi-Fi 6 Coverage

Next, look at the statistics in your network management system. Where is the average signal level too low or the error rate high? Which APs have the most traffic? What areas of the campus do people report as problematic for Wi-Fi?  Your goal for coverage should be that no user ever connects on the 2.4 gigahertz band except for the occasional device that only has an old radio, such as a printer or Internet of Things device.

You should be aiming at a minimum connection speed in the 5GHz band of about 49 megabits per second. APs that are seeing a lot of 2.4GHz clients or that have low average connection speeds need reinforcement. Check for obstacles such as walls or metal surfaces or perhaps users who are connecting from too far away. These are all circumstances that point to a need for more APs.

Your current management system can also tell you the hotspot locations for users as well as what APs are overloaded or underutilized. Look at your high-density areas, such as auditoriums, meeting rooms and theaters, to get clarity on your AP load.

Wi-Fi 6 can handle a higher density of users per access point. However, there is no rule of thumb for the number of users that an AP can handle. This is highly dependent on the type of traffic and type of client (phones versus laptops, for example, or newer versus older devices). But if you have 2x2 APs and shift to 4x4 Wi-Fi 6 APs, you can handle twice the number of clients while delivering the same performance.

To save money, increase AP density only where it makes sense. If you’ve overprovisioned in the past, this might be an opportunity for you to scale back.

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Select the Correct Access Points to Ensure Greater Wi-Fi 6 Speed

Like all recent Wi-Fi versions, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standard 802.11ax, which is the standard supporting the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi 6 designation, has a lot of options that allow for devices with very different performance characteristics. As far as specs go, the most obvious differences between Wi-Fi 6 devices is the number of multi-user, multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) streams available. That’s usually written as two numbers (2x2, 3x3, 4x4 and so on). The meaning is intuitive: Higher numbers mean potentially higher speeds with more antennas in use and more data streaming, all at the same time.

While Wi-Fi 6 allows up to 8x8 MU-MIMO, it doesn’t require that many streams. Consumer-grade Wi-Fi 6 access points designed for residential use often only have 2x2 MU-MIMO capabilities, which is fast by home standards. However, it does not deliver any benefit to a higher-density K–12 campus.

DISCOVER: Three things to consider when making over school networks for learning.

If you replace your Wi-Fi 5 network (IEEE 802.11ac) with a Wi-Fi 6 network but don’t pay attention to the MU-MIMO support on the access points, you could end up with worse performance because you downgraded your MU-MIMO level.

Make sure that whatever equipment you’re considering is campus-grade. Access points should have a 4x4 MU-MIMO level or higher and be designed for a higher-density environment with dozens of users on a single access point.

Joel Snyder
One of the advantages of Wi-Fi 6 is better support for high-density environments. That translates very directly into more users per access point.”

Joel Snyder IT Consultant

Get the Most Out of Your Wi-Fi 6 Upgrade by Aligning Infrastructure

Faster Wi-Fi reverberates through your entire network. One of the advantages of Wi-Fi 6 is better support for high-density environments. That translates very directly into more users per access point. Theoretical per-user speeds in Wi-Fi 6 are also higher than Wi-Fi 5, and while you’re not going to see students connecting at the theoretical maximum of 9.6 gigabits per second, you will see a bump in average per-user speed. That increase will continue to creep up as students trade out older laptops and smartphones for ones that support Wi-Fi 6.

The result is that a 1Gbps end-to-end network may need a speed bump-up all the way from access point to internet connection to make use of the higher speeds in Wi-Fi 6. If you don’t consider the potentially higher bandwidth requirements on the wired side, you risk delivering a costly Wi-Fi upgrade that doesn’t match promised benefits.

Campus-grade Wi-Fi 6 access points start their speed upgrade with a Multi-Gig Ethernet connection on the wired side of the network. Multi-Gig Ethernet is an intermediate multispeed wired Ethernet connection designed to bridge the gap between 1Gbps and 10Gbps network speeds. Typical campus-grade Wi-Fi 6 access points have a 2.5-gigabit Multi-Gig Ethernet connection. They will work with lower speeds, but they’ll also connect at 2.5Gbps if the switch supports it.

The good news is that Multi-Gig Ethernet was designed to deliver 2.5Gbps speeds over CAT 5e cabling in many situations. If you have a good quality cable plant that’s installed properly, you should not need to upgrade your cables to get a 2.5Gbps wired connection, unless you’re stretching Ethernet’s 100-meter distance limitations.

LEARN MORE: Is your school’s cable plant stuck in the past?

You don’t necessarily need to upgrade all those links between switches and access points. Historically, K–12 has shown that a 1Gbps connection to an access point is pretty fast and can handle a lot of simultaneous Wi-Fi users.

However, don’t discount that overall higher load you may be creating in your wiring closets. If every access point has higher network utilization, the uplinks — especially if they’re 1Gbps — may become saturated and congested. Most schools nowadays should have a 10Gbps link between wiring closets and network core, and that alone may force switch upgrades at the edge and core.

Campus-grade Wi-Fi 6 access points will also require Power over Ethernet-plus, a higher level of PoE, which needs to be factored into consideration. With standard PoE, APs may not boot (or may boot but operate in a degraded mode with fewer radios powered on), delivering the same performance as older Wi-Fi 5 APs.

Finally, do a sanity check on specifications for any intervening security appliances, such as firewalls or content filters, and possibly an internet router and connection speed upgrade.

Illustration by Bushra Fida

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