Gen WiFi Demands A+ Educational Networks

The WiFi network on a college campus has grown from a convenience to a must-have, with IT struggling to control and maintain pervasive coverage at high capacity.

Sarosh Vesuna

December 4, 2013

4 Min Read
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Increased use of mobile devices that access high-performance WiFi networks are changing the way we teach and learn more quickly than any other development in the history of education. Placing all of the world's data at the fingertips of students and educators is giving rise to a new generation for whom delays in creation, transmission, and utilization of information are both unknown and unacceptable. That generation is Gen WiFi.

Any parent or high school senior that has completed a multi-city tour to visit their top college and university choices knows the routine. A group of teens and their parents meet at the admissions office at a designated time. Enthusiastic coeds then take them on a walking tour of the grounds.

Institutions with strong legacies make sure you grasp the importance of historical events that took place in beautiful buildings more than 100 years ago. They point to statues of national leaders who attended their schools and the plaques on the walls noting significant donors. Newer universities draw attention to contemporary buildings with modern amenities and discuss their futuristic visions.

But one building at every university always demands a stop on the tour -- the university library. Tour guides describe the large collections of reference materials and point out the glassed-off exhibit of original manuscripts. They walk through the "stacks," towering shelves of well-thumbed volumes that have informed generations of eager knowledge-seekers.

[ Tough battle: Can Colleges Tame The Bandwidth Monster?]

Following on this trend, one might soon expect universities campus tours to linger at campus datacenters. And rather than highlighting the number and quality of volumes and pages, the discussion might focus on the terabytes of information available to students via mobile devices, transmitted over the schools' expansive 802.11ac-based wireless LAN. For Gen WiFi, research is not done inside the walls of the library. They need access to information via whatever device and application they choose, wherever they happen to be, and whenever they choose to access it.

WiFi deployments at universities have transformed over the last few years from networks of convenience to a mission-critical, indispensible means of information access. From the perspective of the university CIO, what started off as a series of easily maintained WiFi hot zones has transformed into an ongoing challenge to control and maintain pervasive wireless LAN coverage at high capacity, ensuring an excellent quality of experience for all. Providing that experience can be expressed with a simple equation:

Education = Mobility x Capacity x Control (E=MC2)

The mobility challenge
Enabling mobility is fundamental to education today, but "connectivity" and "mobility" are not interchangeable terms. Colleges now are deploying WiFi solutions that address mobility head-on, supplying high-performance connectivity to thousands of users and devices that are continuously moving around their campuses. To do this, they deploy wireless LAN networks that not only supply information, but gather it as well. These networks leverage network traffic information obtained from user devices to load-balance between access points and automatically direct traffic based on path-optimized algorithms. This allows them to provide mobile users with a seamless experience, which is especially critical with multimedia applications.

The capacity challenge
Capacity is critical. For the past few years, the number of devices connecting to university WiFi networks has grown by at least a factor of two per semester, but January 2014 promises to be a high-water mark. The winter break and Consumer Electronics Show 2014 will have students returning with the latest 802.11ac gadgets for the spring semester, and traffic on campus WiFi networks will grow as never before. Increasing bit rates offered by 802.11ac will help mitigate some of the demand that new applications will place on these networks, and at a small incremental cost to deploying 802.11n.

The control challenge
Gen WiFi sees the network as an unlimited resource, believing that any of the half-a-million applications on their devices should run flawlessly at all times. For Gen WiFi, BYOD is passé; their mantra is BYOA (as in application). CIOs these days don't only worry about the demands of their students using a flipped classroom model of education with Khan Academy or MOOCs (massive open online courses), they must also concern themselves with Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, Skype, and YouTube.

WiFi systems that keep the infrastructure in control of the entire network -- rather than relinquishing control to each individual device or application -- will not only bring stability to the entire network but also provide highly granular visibility into the mass of traffic flowing through the network.

Generation WiFi is here to stay, and it is irrevocably changing the face of education and how we consume knowledge. Replacing book-filled bags with a few light mobile devices that provide all of the world's knowledge at their fingertips, members of Gen WiFi are driving increased awareness of the need for mobility, and setting higher expectations for what will be delivered. Educational institutions able to align resources to support this growing group will thrive, while those who refuse to are consigned to the "stacks," and left off the tour altogether.   

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