Quit Crowding Me

There’s a party happening on campus and it’s BYOD. BYOD, or Bring Your Own Device, is catching fire as students come to school with three, four, five, or more digital devices that they want to connect wirelessly to 
the Internet. Does your school provide enough bandwidth to accommodate the new digital hordes?

“Today’s students grew up with WiFi,” says Cal Calamari, Global Education Solutions lead for Motorola Solutions. “It’s more than just a convenient extra. It’s an expected service your campus must provide if it wants to compete for students. Higher education institutions always had some level of wireless since its inception in the late 1990s. But with the proliferation of devices, they find that one or two hotspots aren’t enough.”

“I’ve heard that very complaint from a lot of my colleagues,” agrees Dan McCarriar, director, Network and Production Services, Carnegie Mellon University. “About four years ago they threw up a couple of hotspots to accommodate a few people with laptops. Today that is no longer sufficient.”

What devices are students bringing to school? Along with a laptop, expect students to carry a smart phone and tablet to class while they set up a WiFi printer, game system, and Internet-enabled TV in their dorm room. “When college students came back to school in the fall of 2011, they brought 50 percent more wireless devices than they had the semester before,” says Perry Correll, director of Product Marketing, Xirrus. “Every day Apple activates half a million devices, while Android puts up 800,000. Kids today probably don’t know what an Ethernet cable is.”

This proliferation will have real consequences. “Gartner, Inc. (an information technology research and advisory company) predicts that college campuses will have to deploy 300 percent more WiFi than they do now,” continues Correll. “They also say that 80 percent of all WiFi networks are obsolete.”

Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “I’ve got all four bars all over campus, so I’ve got great coverage.” And you do. But coverage and capacity are two different things. What happens when everyone tries to log on to that coverage at the same time? Perhaps the most famous example occurred to the late Steve Jobs during an important product launch. About 40 minutes into the Apple CEO’s keynote speech where he was introducing the then new iPhone4, his demo came to a screeching halt. Turns out there were more than 570 WiFi connections in the hall that were crowding the network. The same thing happened in the same hall to Google shortly after.

Embarrassing? You bet. But glitches like this can be more than just awkward, like when users were kicked off the network at Lee County Public Schools in Fort Myers, FL. More than 50,000 devices connected to the system at once, including students taking an online test, which overwhelmed the network’s firewall.

“You could have 240 users on one wireless radio,” explains Correll, “but it’s not usable. It’s like saying you could put 30 college students into the bed of a pickup truck. Well, yes you can, but you can’t drive anywhere.”

Perhaps a quote from Converge, the Center for Digital Education’s Special Report, says it best. “An educational institution’s network is its digital foundation. A strong network is critical; without it, the other pieces can and will fail. One example: if teachers are trying to incorporate multimedia in their classrooms and the streaming videos stall due to lack of bandwidth, many will become frustrated with the technology and be much less likely to give it a second try.” Yet today’s pedagogy demands that professors and students have Internet accessibility in lecture halls, classrooms, and labs.

The report goes on: “Another challenge for networks is the transient nature of student populations. Groups of students move about — from classroom to cafeteria to lecture hall — creating sudden surges of demand. All the students in a large lecture hall may log in to the same video site, but then as they leave an hour later, the need drops to near zero.”

So where should schools concentrate their WiFi efforts? Carnegie Mellon University invested heavily in the dorm room and the classroom. “We are unique in that we had full campus wireless coverage in the mid-1990s,” says McCarriar. “In 2008 we upgraded and now have lots of capacity, especially in the classroom and residence halls.” Even with this capability, Carnegie Mellon still experiences some glitches. “The NCAA tournament, the World Cup, and President Obama’s visit proved challenging to our system,” admits McCarriar. “Also we have researchers that test technology that can put a strain on the network.”

Special events aside, schools can usually predict the ebbs and flows of usage. Technology and smart systems can help the process with load balancing and band steering. “A laptop can be 2.4 gig or 5 gig,” explains Motorola’s Calamari. “A smart network will assign the device to the band that has the most capacity. If you have a lot of 2.4 devices and three access points, a load balancer will distribute them among the points.”

Just when you think you have this WiFi thing figured out the game changes. Early next year devices will show up with a new, faster wireless protocol. 802.11n, the protocol that has been used for the last five years or so, will be replaced with 802.11ac. Referred to as “gigabit WiFi,” 802.11ac will be significantly faster than its predecessor. This generation works in only 5GHz, so 2.4GHz devices like microwaves and baby monitors won’t interfere and degrade the signal.

“The biggest complaint people have with their wireless devices is that they are too slow and the battery doesn’t last,” says Correll of Xirrus. “802.11ac will speed everything up and that means that the device can go back to sleep quicker, saving the battery. I’ve read that there will be a four- to five-time improvement in battery life.”

Correll strongly suggests planning for the new protocol now, but not to purchase anything yet. “The first generation will be designed for the consumer market,” he says. “By the middle of next year it will be more available and then your IT department can reassess.”