Meeting Demand for Wi-Fi on Campus

by Felix D. Zayas

The robust wi-fi networks that are critical to today’s learning environments require substantial upfront planning to ensure uninterrupted data transmission. Here’s what you need to know.

Wi-Fi For All

From smartphones, laptops, tablets and gaming consoles to tech-infused sports complexes and stadiums, solid wi-fi connections on today’s college campuses are mission-critical.

While just a few years ago a campus wi-fi connection might have required students to trek to a classroom or library, ubiquitous access is the expectation today: Anyone, anywhere on campus should be able to get wi-fi, and it had better be fast. How else can your roommates get their research done while you stream season eight of The Office between classes? With so many devices in play at any given time, it is ever more critical that wireless access points (APs) are designed to maximize capacity and deliver on their ability to serve countless users on multiple devices.

From Poker Chip Design to Predictive Modeling

To ensure that campuses are delivering, wireless access points need to be strategically placed and distributed. Until recently, access points were laid out in what is referred to as a “poker chip design,” which calls for access points placed in the center of a 50 foot radius with a small overlap. When devices were fixed this approach worked very well to ensure coverage, but it is far less reliable in a mobile-device world.

A more sophisticated design involves predictive modeling using software that takes into consideration components such as room use, wall thickness and expected traffic to more accurately place access points for optimal coverage. For example, elevator shafts, stairwells, rated rooms, and lab rooms utilizing fume hoods can often be a challenging area for wi-fi signals. There may be good reason within such a space, depending on its density and layout, to install more access points within an environment using such equipment. Although more isn’t always better, there are many approaches that can be taken to accommodate the architecture.

Wireless Access Point Design Terms and Survey Methods

As you begin your next project and are looking to upgrade your wi-fi access, here are some common industry terms and methods to be familiar with and inquire about with your planning team:

  • Predictive Survey: Modeling the best location for the access points.
  • Passive Survey: Once the access points are installed, a laptop equipped with survey software and an antennae allows for a walk-through of all parts of the building, recording data that includes signal strength, channel overlap, signal-to-noise ratio, and air-time utilization.
  • AP on a Stick: This is most often used in renovation projects and takes the exact access point model that the user will have into the field and places it at the ceiling, and then surveys the surrounding rooms. Once the signal is recorded, the AP is “frozen” in the software and then the AP is placed at the next logical location. The surveyor repeats the process until the surveyor has a floor plan showing all the desired locations for the AP deployment.

Work With a CWNA to Receive the Best, Vendor-neutral Design

A Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) will be knowledgeable about the latest in wi-fi networks, how they are best installed and designed, what security measures they need, and how to troubleshoot any issues in the network. CWNAs are not allied with any particular brand or system, which means owners are not solely relying on the vendor’s advice and the possibility of unnecessary add-ons — while trusting that students and teachers can tap into the network whenever and wherever they want, even if it’s for another round of binging on the antics at Dunder-Mifflin.

Felix D. Zayas

Felix D. Zayas, RCDD, TLT, CWNA, DCDC, NTS, CTS, is associate principal and manager of technology services at BVH Integrated Services, P.C.