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Where's my Wi-Fi?

District leaders tackle bandwidth demand with different solutions
At Madison County Schools in Alabama, technology coordinator Tom Whitten, above on left, meets with his IT team to solve bandwidth issues in the district’s schools.
At Madison County Schools in Alabama, technology coordinator Tom Whitten, above on left, meets with his IT team to solve bandwidth issues in the district’s schools.

The wireless networks at six high schools in the Madison County Schools in Alabama are now humming at full power after administrators figured out how to prevent a new wave of new smartphones, tablets and other devices from overwhelming bandwidth capacity.

“Kids were streaming media on their own devices, so we couldn’t access online information needed for our science labs or get legitimate school computers to do what they were supposed to do,” says Tommy Whitten, technology coordinator for Madison County Schools.

Madison County had to solve the problem before it could launch a BYOD program, Whitten says. “We realized we’d have to continue to increase bandwidth if we were going to make the BYOD work,” he says.

More school systems are facing the challenges of bandwidth management as they move toward 1-to-1 and BYOD initiatives—and as digital curriculums, video libraries and other online media require greater network resources.

“Districts across the country are in a race to grow their infrastructure to support the integration of rich digital content,” says Craig Halper, vice president of Discovery Education. “While there is significant attention paid to deployment of devices to students, these devices will have limited impact in the classroom without engaging content, meaningful professional development for the educators and a strong infrastructure.”

To meet this need, district technology leaders are building robust digital transformation plans. And a crucial component of such plans is a strategy addressing broadband and Wi-Fi infrastructure, Halper says.

Facing bandwidth challenges

At the Metro-Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, district leaders base network infrastructure plans on educational goals and the technology they will have in place, says Kecia Ray, the district’s executive director of learning technology and board chair of the International Society for Technology in Education.

Districts can best determine future needs when they decide what kind of tech program they want to implement. For instance, BYOD, 1 to 1 or some other blended technology environment all have different bandwidth considerations, Ray says.

In addition, Ray says that any curriculum should be the driving force behind tech upgrades. “To best support the school improvement and district technology plan, it is critical that the level of bandwidth is best suited to meet the site’s educational goals, not vice-versa,” she says.

Funding, of course, may be the biggest challenge. For instance, access points that are placed throughout buildings to allow students and staff to connect to the Wi-Fi cost about $350 apiece, says Chris Koeneman, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for ADTRAN, a network infrastructure company specializing in educational facilities.

School districts can fund these improvements in various ways. Many districts pay for technology upgrades through special bond issues or their normal state-provided tax revenues, Koeneman says. The federal E-rate program, which provides technology discounts to schools and libraries, is one of the largest sources of technology infrastructure funding available to K12 leaders, Ray says.

Some individual schools in Madison County won grants from the federal government and other organizations and, therefore, didn’t have to wait for district funding, Whitten adds.

Chunks of bandwidth

Koeneman says bandwidth challenges can be broken down into three “chunks”: (1) the bandwidth going from an individual device to an access point, (2) the connectivity across the school’s local area network (LAN), and (3) the school’s connection to a wide area network (WAN) or internet service provider.

Wi-Fi access points connect to a school’s LAN, and some schools must upgrade their LANs to accommodate all the additional Wi-Fi traffic, Koeneman says. He has encountered “a huge variability” among school district LANs.

“Some schools are up to date and can add access points with no changes to their LAN, while others are barely limping along and adding Wi-Fi means a complete overhaul,” he says.

Upgrading WAN capacity and LAN infrastructure can be inexpensive, but is “pretty straightforward,” Koeneman says. It’s the connection between the individual device and the access point that is “the bandwidth area that’s most mysterious, and where the bottleneck is for most schools,” Koeneman says.

In Madison County, the district had already increased service from its WAN provider and made a few changes on its LAN. So the next step was to consider the number of devices using bandwidth from each access point. Working with ADTRAN, the district installed one access point per classroom. “We decided we’d have to dedicate one access point to service every 25 to 30 students,” Whitten says.

Installing more access points to allow more devices to perform high-bandwidth activities, such as watching videos, has become more common in schools nationwide, Koeneman says.

“Schools used to deploy Wi-Fi by signal coverage—they would put an access point in the hallway and see how far it would reach,” Koeneman says. “But it doesn’t really matter how far the signal covers. It depends on the level of service that a school wants to offer its students.”

An access point has a fixed amount of available “throughput,” which is the amount of data that can move through a connection, Koeneman says. Throughput, usually measured in megabits per second, governs how fast a web page will load for the user or how often a video has to buffer. “Throughput is the critical factor in the end-user experience,” Koeneman says.

Schools must determine how many devices they want to serve and the level of throughput they want to provide each one. “You can put 1,000 students on one access point, but they’re not going to be happy with the service because it will be slow,” he says.

If the internet is simply being used for research, around 40 students per access point works fine during busy hours. But over the past three years, as schools have begun using the internet in ways that require more throughput for each device, 25 or 30 devices per access point may be the limit for fast service.

“Everybody has devices and you’re using video as a key part of learning,” Koeneman says. “It’s all about level of service for the number of devices you want to support—and that’s a big shift in how schools approach bandwidth.”

Managing available bandwidth

Some districts are saving bandwidth—and the expense of upgrades—by restricting the use of their networks to specific educational purposes. For instance, Hardin County Schools in Kentucky has 14,000 students enrolled and more than 20,000 devices on its network.

Rather than upgrading network infrastructure, the district worked with Extreme Networks to determine how to distribute bandwidth during the school day and after-school hours, says Steve Boone, computer operations manager for the district.

For instance, the network allows students to register only one device, such as a school-issued tablet or laptop, or one sanctioned by the BYOD program. Registered devices get higher priority than non-registered devices—such as those used by guests—when bandwidth is distributed.

But access can be adjusted for different times of day. For instance, guests with unregistered devices have elevated privileges after 4 p.m. at Hardin County Schools, so that parents and community members who may be on campus are able to use the network.

While Hardin County may eventually have to upgrade infrastructure to keep up with the demand for bandwidth, its management plan is working for now, says Jonathan Kidwell, director of educational sales at Extreme Networks. However, in a fast-changing world of technology, district leaders must realize that keeping up with bandwidth demand is likely to be an ongoing issue.

Without setting specific usage restrictions in their networks, most school districts are allowing the same access to a PlayStation Portable handheld video game as they would a laptop. A Nintendo DS can be an impediment to the school day because it may distract students from their work, and it can also use a lot of bandwidth, says Kidwell. “Districts make decisions about how to distribute bandwidth based on time of day and location.”

For instance, some districts may allow gaming applications to be run in the gym but not in classrooms, Kidwell says.

Similarly, at some Madison County Schools that don’t have access points in every classroom, the district is restricting some types of web streaming, Whitten says.

The district offers bandwidth priority to school-approved applications that are needed for educational objectives, such as online labs and educational videos. Students who want to use bandwidth for other purposes, such as playing video games or watching non-educational videos, Whitten concludes, can still access the internet but it will be very slow.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a contributing writer.