Wi-Fi Upgrade

E-rate presents schools with new opportunities — and requirements. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Bruce Miller

CREDIT XirrusOn July 11, the FCC approved $2 billion to upgrade the wireless networks in schools across the country. This funding couldn’t have come at a better time. The influx of devices coming to campuses coupled with increased 1:1 programs and new technology-centric pedagogy places massive burdens on aging wireless infrastructures. Conversations about outfitting children with laptops and iPads, etc., are commonplace, but not so much are the discussions around the decidedly less thrilling connectivity infrastructure needed to support these devices. This is why the FCC’s most recent funding initiative is so crucial. Upgrades to Wi-Fi infrastructure are critical for mobile devices to yield any benefits to students.

Many administrators and IT staff are not aware of the bandwidth requirements for classrooms with 1:1 devices.

Currently, the increasing number of student devices on campuses is straining school networks designed for coverage. The connected school is rapidly becoming the norm: Internet on school buses, cloud-hosted applications, remote storage, digital attendance and emergency notifications via Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi networks that are “good enough” are no longer sufficient. The networks must withstand the immense strain by increasing devices, traffic and applications over the coming years. Unfortunately, several common hurdles will challenge schools as they plan their upgrades: lack of funding knowledge, lack of technical expertise, false assumptions and evolving technology standards.

Funding Knowledge

Over the next few months, administrators will apply for E-Rate funding. They will not find out if they’ve been granted funds until the spring. Between now and then, they will be asking themselves “what if we don’t qualify?” Many administrators don’t understand that there is a wealth of options available for alternative funding options, and that they can utilize resources they may not have thought of before, such as ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act), IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), state common core funds, and local bond initiatives. While pursuing E-Rate, administrators should begin researching all the options available to them within their state as well as how they reallocate funding they’re already receiving.

New Skills Sets

Teaching in a Wi-Fi-enabled classroom requires a new set of skills, both from a technical standpoint and from an instructional one. New opportunities exist when each student has access to the fast-growing ecosystem of web-based tools. Teachers will need to be utilizing these tools to create a more robust learning environment for students, and also to ensure the school’s investment is well utilized. Teaching is moving towards highly individualized adaptive learning with the help of technology. Furthermore, IT and administrators will face a new set of challenges and protocols when dealing with students bringing a personal laptops or tablet to campus and logging on.

False Assumptions

Many administrators and IT staff are not aware of the bandwidth requirements for classrooms with 1:1 devices. Having multiple classrooms per Wi-Fi access point will no longer suffice when 30 students in a classroom are simultaneously access web resources or watching video per teacher’s instructions. Classrooms that once found a low-bandwidth and low-speed wireless network sufficient now find they need something that provides the same solid connectivity as an Ethernet connection.

Evolving Technology Standards

Before administrators begin their upgrades, they need to understand the evolving Wi-Fi technology standards. The most common standard today is 802.11n; however this protocol is rapidly changing as Gigabit speed 802.11ac products are coming to market. 802.11ac offers 3-15 times the speeds that are supported by many new devices coming to the market, including the upcoming iPhone 6. But even 802.11ac continues to evolve – Wave 2 of 802.11ac will reach the market in 2015. Planning to support the devices and usage of tomorrow, not just today, is key to ensuring longevity in wireless networks and that the E-Rate funds last as long as possible.

What’s Next?

The E-Rate funds are extremely promising for schools, and there is a great deal of information that decision-makers will have to process to reach the best conclusion for their own students. Administrators must be proactive in planning for contingencies and to ensure this investment will have the best impact on their learning environment. In addition to securing the funding to improve their network, they will need the right information to decide what technology to purchase, as well as an update in policies and teaching methods to ensure this purchase has a true positive impact on students.

As the next school year begins and the announcement of who gets E-Rate funding approaches, administrators should prepare themselves for a sea change in technology – one that will help them fulfill their mission to bring the best learning opportunities to their students as possible.

Bruce Miller is VP of product marketing for Xirrus.

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