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Wi-Fi 6 Benefits and what it means for schools

The next generation Wi-Fi is 802.11ax (also known as: high-efficiency wireless). Helpfully though, it is referred to as Wi-Fi 6 which easier to remember and makes sense as it is the 6th generation.

What are the improvements and how will this benefit a school environment?

Higher density, higher throughput and higher capacity, this is how it is being sold to us so let’s see what benefits this brings to teaching and learning.

Classrooms are now flexible learning environments, so schools now need a wireless solution that can also adapt and accommodate a high density of students all using a mobile device, all streaming video resources or accessing high bandwidth applications.

Learning no longer takes place just in the classroom. Large common spaces, break out areas and external play spaces can also become high density areas. ICT should not be a limitation to new and creative learning techniques.

Wi-Fi 6 addresses this type of usage by increasing client density and lowering latency. There are two key technologies in Wi-Fi 6 connections: MU-MIMO and OFDMA. Wi-Fi 6 can now divide a wireless channel into a large number of subchannels. Each of these subchannels can carry data intended for a different device. This is achieved through something called Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access, or OFDMA.

The new standard also has improved MIMO—Multiple In/Multiple Out. This involves multiple antennas, which let the access point talk to multiple devices at once. With Wi-Fi 5, the access point could talk to devices at the same time, but those devices couldn’t respond at the same time. Wi-Fi 6 has an improved version of multi-user or MU-MIMO that lets devices respond to the wireless access point at the same time.

In real terms, this means the Wi-Fi access point can talk to more devices at once and improve load times, perfect for a school environment.

With the increase in mobile devices being used throughout the whole school day, teachers and students need decent battery life to avoid being tethered to a power socket. When the access point is providing data to a mobile device, it can tell the device exactly when to put its Wi-Fi radio to sleep and exactly when to wake it up. This will conserve power, as it means the Wi-Fi radio can spend more time in sleep mode, and that means longer battery life.

We need to think about more than just new access points - Multigig Switches, CAT6A and PoE.

What many websites I visited fail to mention, is that to get the benefit of Wi-Fi 6 you will need to think about more than just the wireless access points located around the school. Your network infrastructure: switch bandwidth, PoE budget and copper cabling standard all need to support the next generation wireless.

Plugging in a 2.5Gbps or 5Gbps access point will not immediately give you Wi-Fi 6 if your switches are limited to 1Gbps ports or if you have CAT5e cabling with 1Gbps maximum data rate.

New network infrastructure in schools has moved recently to 100% PoE switches. This is great for 1 to 1 patching in the Server and Hub Rooms; it makes moving access points, cameras, telephones or other devices that utilise PoE easy. However, MultiGig switches are expensive so providing just enough MultiGig ports for the number of access points will require some longer patching cables again!

Increased PoE requirements mean higher heat outputs from the MultiGig switches, therefore cooling in the Server and Hub Rooms need to be revisited to ensure the A/C capacity is adequate.

If you have CAT5 or CAT5e cabling, the maximum bandwidth is 1Gbps, so installing access points with 5Gbps ports isn’t going to work. CAT6 can carry 10Gbps but limited to 55 metres, CAT6A is ideal with 10Gbps over 100 metres.

Testing blanket wireless coverage in a new school slippers.

So, to conclude, the next generation wireless has many benefits for a school environment with the technology enhancements specifically targeted at high density spaces, bringing a real improvement to teaching and learning, Wi-Fi 6 is more than just ‘the next version’. However, it’s not just about upgrading the access points. Instead real network infrastructure planning and investment is needed.

Nathan Osbaldstone

Principal Consultant

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