Preparing for a new era in Wi-fi
Michael Green, Senior Consultant with PTS Consulting, considers the opportunities in Higher Education offered by the latest Wi-Fi standards
“Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Faster, Higher, Stronger), the motto of the modern Olympic movement, was ably demonstrated last summer as London hosted the most successful Olympics and Paralympics Games of recent years. 2012 also saw the dawn of a new era in enterprise wireless networking, with several manufacturers announcing and demonstrating the next generation of wireless local area network products, based on 802.11ac standards. The IEEE is expected to formally ratify the 802.11ac standard early in 2013, though consumers can already buy pre-certification devices and enjoy some of the benefits that 5th generation wireless networking offers.
The Challenge facing Higher Education
In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, UK universities continue to be at the forefront of the trend towards the consumerisation of IT, and the BYOD phenomenon.
Wi-Fi technology is ubiquitous on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Current projections are that by 2017 the average user will own at least 5 wireless enabled devices. A wireless network is an essential component of the facilities and services that students expect to be provided, and the quality of the ‘experience’ offered by universities and colleges is now a significant factor in attracting students to a place of study.
The challenge is therefore to offer a wireless campus infrastructure capable of meeting user expectations for ‘Anytime, Anywhere’ delivery of teaching material, online content, and audiovisual multimedia, whether in support of new approaches to learning or for recreational purposes. The 802.11ac standard aims to combine the freedom of wireless with the bandwidth of Gigabit Ethernet, offering organisations the prospect of meeting this challenge.
Faster, Higher, Stronger – The benefits of 802.11ac
The new IEEE standard delivers significant improvements upon many of the best techniques that the Wi-Fi industry has learned from 802.11n. As a result 802.11ac, while retaining backwards compatibility for legacy device support, offers a 10-fold increase in bandwidth capacity, through capabilities which include:
Maximum individual device link speeds up to 1.3Gbps, and up to 6.93 Gbps throughput per AP.
Enhanced support for dense client environments e.g. communal areas or teaching spaces, by enabling each AP to serve the same number of Wi-Fi clients with greater per-client throughput, or to support more Wi-Fi clients with the same throughput.
The trend toward more antennae, and MU-MIMO (Multi User-Multi Input Multi Output), will make it easier to provide Wi-Fi coverage around physical obstructions, deliver higher speeds at longer range, and improve the reliability of Wi-Fi connections.
To ease client transition, most 802.11ac-capable APs will be equipped with 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios, supporting legacy 802.11b/g/n users on 2.4GHz, legacy 802.11a users on 5GHz, and providing 802.11ac enabled network clients with an enhanced experience on 5GHz, including benefits such as allowing faster file downloads and extending device battery life.
Wireless Campus Considerations
Wireless network technology is evolving rapidly, and to an increasingly mobile society, the 802.11ac standard offers the potential to remove the remaining technical barriers to an all-wireless campus network access environment.
Strategic RF planning, informed by awareness of current industry developments, such as 802.11ad 60GHz wireless, 802.11u Hotspot 2.0, and 3G/4G to Wi-Fi data offload, will be critical in successfully directing campus wireless designs to provide adequate coverage and capacity.
The development of a strategy which encompasses both wired and wireless network infrastructures is also essential, to ensure that the wired network design, from the edge to the core, is adequate to accommodate increasing wireless traffic demands.
Besides other related activities such as security policy development, effective collaboration between IT and estates will be important to the process of identifying and assessing potential physical constraints such as:
Improvements to the high-level cabling infrastructure, to ensure adequate Gigabit wired network capacity
Increased PoE capacity, or local mains power provision for APs
Support for higher AP densities
The provision of power for charging mobile devices
Also, the secure, self-registration of devices by users, and an ability to create personal WLAN environments within a corporate wireless infrastructure will be important to the successful adoption and smooth operation of a campus wireless access solution.
The emphasis of data network access has already shifted away from wired infrastructures to wireless solutions, whether 3G/4G or Wi-Fi.
A wireless network infrastructure is a major investment, with the technology expected to last for a number of years. Since it is projected that 802.11ac support will feature in two thirds of chipset shipments by the end of 2014, it is important that current and future wireless procurements establish, for each proposed solution, the upgrade path and cost associated with the support of future technology standards, and consider the nature of the load placed on the wired network by particular wireless solution designs.
Informed, comprehensive, strategic planning is the key to a successful campus wireless network deployment, and will be critical to the reputation and future commercial success of HE organisations.
While a well-architected, wired network will remain necessary for the foreseeable future, and with several HE organisations already looking to replace wired networks in halls of residence with wireless access, the potential capacity of 802.11ac brings the genuine prospect of an all-wireless campus access network.
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