Apr 27 2021

K–12 Districts Look to Upgrade to Wi-Fi 6

Here’s what schools should consider as they migrate to the new wireless standard in search of a robust network.

Like K­–12 technologists around the country, Stuart Long is expecting a post-pandemic boom in devices on campus.

“We know education will look different when people come back full time at full capacity,” said Long, who, as CIO of the Northwest Regional Education Service District / Cascade Technology Alliance, delivers technology services to multiple Oregon school districts.

Long is among the first wave of K–12 leaders looking at Wi-Fi 6, the emerging wireless standard. Formally known as 802.11ax, Wi-Fi 6 promises a fourfold increase in throughput. In schools challenged by the bandwidth demands of an increasing number of wireless devices and applications, administrators are looking to the new standard to deliver seamless connectivity in a dense wireless environment.

“We will have more electronics, more computers, more devices in general, and there will be a demand for greater wireless bandwidth to support all of that. It will be critical that the Wi-Fi infrastructure be able to handle all that load,” Long said.

Pandemic Pushes Schools to Switch

The rapid shift to one-to-one devices during the pandemic created a renewed sense of urgency around Wi-Fi needs. Wi-Fi 6 adoption is accelerating as administrators ponder the impact of all those computers coming back to school.

“All organizations have taken this opportunity to take a look at what they need to do to move themselves forward,” says James Robertson, vice president of strategic initiatives in the Office of the CTO at Aruba. “They are looking at what the future will hold.”

“Today it’s one-to-one Chromebooks,” he says. “Tomorrow it could be virtual and augmented reality. Wi-Fi 6 will allow you to provide adequate access for those kinds of devices and applications, whatever we can imagine from an educational standpoint.”

With its high-capacity capabilities, Wi-Fi 6 “is steadily being adopted and will soon become a must-have for all educational institutions,” says David Coleman, director of product marketing at Extreme Networks.

Those who have begun the transition should consider what other elements of the network a move to the new Wi-Fi standard will impact. Many CTOs will want to make a long-term plan for incorporating Wi-Fi 6 into their district’s existing network infrastructure.

KEEP READING: K–12 superintendents describe the benefits of working with district CTOs.

At Highline Public Schools near Seattle, CTO Mark Finstrom plans to replace all of his district’s access points with Wi-Fi 6 units in the coming year.

“But will the switches I put in two years ago be able to handle that?” asks Finstrom, who also chairs CoSN’s Smart Education Networks by Design (SEND) initiative. “I know my new core and edge switches enable it, but now I will have a mixed environment, which could be frustrating for end users. The combination of equipment could impact that user experience.”

Don’t Overlook Interrelated Technologies

Experts say the key factor to understand about Wi-Fi 6 is that it does not stand alone. It should be viewed as part of the overall network infrastructure.

“The entire ecosystem from end to end has to be optimized to get the best experience for the user,” Robertson says. “That starts with the access point, but it goes into the switches and then beyond that to wherever they are getting their services from, whether that is a nearby data center or something out in the cloud.

The 802.11 standard defines the radio, which is a very important component, but that’s just one element of the network’s bigger picture. “You can have Wi-Fi 6 deployed, but if your broadband connection to the internet goes down, or if that connection is severely limited, you will not see much performance. The whole system has to be balanced,” says Dorothy Stanley, HPE Fellow and head of standards strategy at Aruba, who chairs of the IEEE 802.11 Working Group.

Dorothy Stanley
You can have Wi-Fi 6 deployed, but if your broadband connection to the internet goes down, or if that connection is severely limited, you will not see much performance. The whole system has to be balanced.”

Dorothy Stanley HPE Fellow and Head of Standards Strategy, Aruba

To balance systems in Oregon’s school districts, Long is using equipment from Aruba, CiscoMeraki and others in his initial deployments, and he’s looking beyond the upgraded access points. He says that every component in the network chain should be re-examined. Even if schools aren’t upgrading to Wi-Fi 6, the influx of new devices will lead to increased demands for capacity, which may require schools to make other changes.

“We need to look at the aggregate capacity of the entire network stack,” Long says. “You’re going to need bigger switches, bigger routers, bigger firewalls, all the way up the line.”

K–12 technology planners will certainly need to take a fresh look at security as capacity demands rise. While they’ll want to upgrade firewalls and other cybersecurity measures, some experts say Wi-Fi 6 actually gives IT leaders a cybersecurity edge.

“Wi-Fi 6 routers include the WPA3 security protocols, which can make it harder for hackers to crack passwords, and it makes some data less useful, even if bad actors obtain it,” says Chris Babson, director of worldwide education portfolio strategy at Lenovo. This security is crucial for many K–12 districts, which have recently become targets for cyberattacks.

For some, this will mean taking a fresh look at the data center, which plays a central role in overall networking architecture.

“It doesn’t have to be hyperconverged, but it has to be optimized,” Robertson says. He notes that schools won’t see much benefit in connecting devices capable of Wi-Fi 6 to legacy infrastructure. District leaders must work to maintain the connectivity experience across the board, which often means looking at the entire path and upgrading technology accordingly.

In fact, infrastructure at all levels may need to be revisited in a Wi-Fi 6 rollout, including physical elements within the schools.

“It’s important to consider the structured cabling needs,” says Rich Nedwich, CommScope’s global director of education. “Put simply, the installation of new structured cabling, such as CAT 6 and fiber, should be deployed to access the full potential of Wi-Fi 6 and future proof campus networks.”

Integrate Upgrades with Device Refreshes

As a final consideration when making the switch, schools should think about transitioning to Wi-Fi 6–capable devices, some of which are just beginning to hit the market. As Finstrom rolls out his initial Wi-Fi upgrades, he’s refreshing older devices with machines capable of utilizing the new standard. For many schools, this will be an ongoing process over the course of a long-term plan.

RELATED: Here’s what K–12 leaders should consider when spending federal funds.

“It’s starting to trickle in as we buy devices with the new chipsets, specialty devices that we are purchasing for specific needs,” Finstrom says. “They are starting to have the compatibility option: It will connect to a Wi-Fi 6 router if a router is available.”

Many schools will follow a similar path, upgrading devices as refresh cycles allow while beginning to put in place the infrastructure elements that support Wi-Fi 6. All this will be necessary as compute uses intensify with IoT on campus, VR and AR applications and a proliferation of one-to-one devices.

“Your network has to evolve to meet the needs of the staff, the students and the classroom going forward,” Stanley says. “That means you are going to go to Wi-Fi 6. You may be doing other things in your network, but to the extent that your access technology has to support a large number of new applications, it needs to evolve to Wi-Fi 6. That’s a core component of your IT network strategy.”

Fly View Productions/Getty Images