How better campus WiFi can prevent a student zombie apocalypse

Faced with widespread unhappiness over campus WiFi performance, UNC at Charlotte is upgrading to new 802.11ac Wave 2 access points.

campus-WiFi-waveHell hath no fury like a student with no WiFi connection. It’s a reality recognized by more and more colleges as they compete for the affections of today’s screen-addled youth. Indeed, WiFi represents an entirely new front in the amenities arms race, with schools battling to keep up with student expectations in the face of an unprecedented surge in the number of devices on campus.

“We are seeing somewhere between three and five devices per student,” said Jesse Beauman, assistant vice chancellor for enterprise infrastructure at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which is embarking on a major WiFi overhaul that is expected to last two years. “In the past three years, the use of wireless has exploded and, like most campuses, we are playing catch-up while also trying to plan for the future.”

The need to catch up is evidenced by growing unhappiness at UNCC with the performance of the current WiFi setup, which utilizes a combination of primarily 802.11n and some 802.11ac Wave 1 access points (APs). “Our biggest problem is that we have more clients than our infrastructure can handle,” said Beauman. “As students bring more and more laptops, smartphones, tablets, and wearable tech, we’re exceeding our capacity, so there have been a lot of complaints of slowness or an inability to associate with an access point.”

To resolve the problem and lay the groundwork for future service demands, the university decided to switch vendors and replace all 1,600 existing APs with 802.11ac Wave 2 APs. In October, the school took delivery of 1,200 Aruba 320 Series APs, with the goal of having them all in place by March. Ultimately, IT plans to install about 2,500 of the new APs.

(Next page: Targeting high traffic areas)

The 802.11ac Wave 2 is the most advanced AP available, with performance metrics that make the 802.11n pale in comparison. The 802.11ac Wave 1, released in 2013, already offers triple the data rate of its older cousin. Now, Wave 2 promises additional improvements in both performance and efficiency. Performance gains come from Wave 2’s support of four spatial streams rather than three with Wave 1. And Wave 2’s support of multi-user multiple input, multiple output functionality, known as MU-MIMO, makes it possible for an AP to send multiple frames to multiple clients simultaneously over the same frequency. (For a technical description of the differences among 802.11n, 802.11ac Wave 1, and 802.11ac Wave 2, see “Surfing the next wave in campus WiFi.”) All this is just a fancy way of saying that Wave 2 APs can accommodate more devices at higher speeds than ever before.

Targeting High-Traffic Areas

“Initally, we’re targeting our high-use areas for the 802.11ac Wave 2 APs,” said Mike Carlin, CIO at UNCC. “The obvious ones are the student union, locations where there’s a lot of food for the students, and our library. From there we will focus predominantly on academic buildings, again based on usage.”

While student expectations were a major factor in UNCC’s decision to upgrade its WiFi network, the university is also responding to changing pedagogical approaches among its faculty. “We have been hearing from faculty who want to engage more in the classroom with BYOD,” said Carlin. “With our current setup, students might be in the middle of an online quiz and suddenly get kicked off. These kinds of problems have limited faculty adoption of BYOD and other creative ways to engage with students. We view [the wireless upgrade] as the foundation for allowing us to engage in a different type of pedagogy in the classroom.”

Given the paucity of discretionary funds in IT budgets, many schools are likely to upgrade to Wave 2 APs as part of their regular refresh cycles. At UNCC, however, Carlin used a combination of one-time funds and tech-refresh money to kick-start the upgrade. Getting buy-in from campus executives proved to be relatively easy. “I think the unsatisfactory performance in the existing WiFi made the case for me, honestly,” said Carlin, noting that Wave 2 APs cost $100-$150 more than their Wave 1 equivalents. “It really wasn’t much of a sell given their own experiences with the network.”

To ensure that the school received value for its money, IT first conducted a test over several months comparing the performance of APs from Aruba and Cisco, which UNCC considers the top two vendors in the space. While Aruba was ultimately selected, Carlin urges schools to do their own due diligence. “Every campus is a little bit different in terms of its environment and how it performs,” he said. “The testing we did really helped give us experience with the products in a real-world environment versus simply trusting what the vendor talks about in a PowerPoint presentation.”

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor with eCampus News.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.