Evaluating Wireless Needs

Three questions to ask before selecting a K-12 Wi-Fi solution.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jason King

CREDIT ADTRAN erateMobile devices are instrumental in creating an innovative and interactive educational experience in today’s classrooms. To support these advanced digital tools, K-12 IT staff across the country are working to meet new district-wide 1:1 computing and BYOD mobility needs and expectations—but it hasn’t been an elementary task for everyone.

In 2014, the FCC estimated that 50 percent of school buildings have inferior wiring for today’s broadband speeds1, while three out of every five schools lack the wireless needed to deploy educational tools.2

There are several questions that today’s K-12 IT staff should consider in order to make the best network decisions.

Luckily, during the same timeframe, the FCC earmarked $5 billion in E-rate funding to be distributed over the next five years for wireless spending. This funding empowers schools with state-of-the-art Wi-Fi capabilities and enables IT departments to become more nimble and responsive, as well as provide tighter security, increase scalability and be more cost effective.

As IT managers wade through all the options to pick the right wireless solution, there are several questions that today’s K-12 IT staff should consider in order to make the best network decisions for their students, staff and schools.

Question 1: Which is better for my school: a hosted/managed service or managing Wi-Fi onsite?

E-rate now supports managed Wi-Fi networks—an attractive option for conserving budgets and the time IT staff spends maintaining the network. However, schools should not get locked into a long-term subscription model if it does not fit their needs.

The debate of whether to have the Wi-Fi network hosted or to keep it all on-site is an age old question. The answer is really a business decision to determine whether they have the resources to keep provisioning new users and access points (APs), or if offloading those activities to an outside vendor or partner would be most valuable. If offloading is the most attractive option, districts should make sure they have the flexibility to switch back to an on-premises model in the event their circumstances change.

Question 2: Should I go with 802.11n or 802.11ac?

The latest generation wireless standard, 802.11ac, features greatly increased speeds that almost match the wired network. In a cloud-based environment, upgrading from 802.11n to 802.11ac is as simple as a software upgrade and deployment of the new APs. With traditional controller-based Wi-Fi networks, an upgrade to 802.11ac would also require a new controller, adding to the expense and perhaps making 802.11n the most attractive option.

IT staff should also consider that the current marketplace is only on its first wave of 802.11ac APs; products supporting the second wave will be available in the second half of 2015. The second wave of the 802.11ac standard promises speeds of over a Gigabit. If high-speed connectivity is a goal of the Wi-Fi network, IT staff may want to hold out for this generation of APs until wave two is available.

Question 3: What kind of security do I need to ensure privacy mandates?

The security of the Wi-Fi network is paramount. Networks can (and should) be segmented by user populations, such that students, teachers and administration can be segmented into different roles, each with unique and specialized access to the network and applications. Teachers also need to have control over what kind of information students are accessing over the Internet in their classrooms. Additionally, geo-location tracking on devices is helpful for maintaining the security of teachers and students. Even guests who come to a school can be tracked on campus using a location-based service.

Managed service providers are highly experienced with secure networks, delivering multiple levels of industry-standard encryption and fine-grained access controls. This can be particularly important in an environment where students and teachers are using their personal devices, as opposed to devices provided by the school.

There are many ways to optimize your wireless network and the wireless budget. It is important to carefully weigh all available options to ensure the right solution is selected to meet the unique needs of your school and/or district. In the end, it can be as easy as 1-2-3: the school wireless network should (1) enhance the learning environment with (2) reliable wireless connectivity and (3) delivered at a reasonable cost.

1 FCC, “Reply Comments of the Consortium for School Networking,” 2014

2 FCC, “Access to the Underserved: Keeping up with the Times,” June 20, 2014

Jason King is the Director of Marketing for the Bluesocket Business Group at ADTRAN. With over 15 years’ experience in the industry, he is responsible for the overall promotion and positioning of the company’s Wi-Fi solutions. Find him on Twitter @jjking24


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