Nine myths about Wi-Fi in higher education

By Steve Johnson, Regional Director, Northern Europe at Ruckus Wireless

Until a few years ago universities were Wi-Fi hot spots. Many institutions lacked the budget for robust deployments and many others avoided the technology for security or educational reasons. Today, Wi-Fi is a reality on most campuses, but it still has a bit of spotty reputation in some circles.

Outlined below are nine myths about campus Wi-Fi deployments, which if avoided, mean there is a much better chance it will work as promised.

#1 – The average student brings 3 devices to campus

Most students carry a laptop and a smartphone. Some have a tablet too. In their room they have hooked up a gaming console, wireless printer, smart TV. According to re:fuel Agency’s 2014 College Explorer report, the average student brings seven internet-connected devices to campus. All of these devices are Wi-Fi enabled, and all of these devices are trying to connect to campus Wi-Fi.

#2 – More access points in high density areas will ensure better wireless coverage

It is a common mistake to think that throwing money at a problem will solve it. Adding APs to a Wi-Fi deployment can add capacity to a point, but there comes a time when it becomes counter-productive. APs can see performance degradation due to over-deployment when more than one AP is covering the same channel to the same device. For some Wi-Fi installations, APs are configured with low transmit power to give the illusion that an over-deployment has been avoided. Don’t fall for this.  Wi-Fi is a two-way communication technology, and thus decreasing AP transmit power fails to prevent channel congestion problems. 

#3 Wave 2 APs won’t help without Wave 2 clients

While it’s true that the full benefits of the Wave 2 Wi-Fi standard won’t be recognised until the devices are available, Wave 1 APs do not deliver the same performance as Wave 2.
Wave 2 APs use a more modern chipset, which offers better sensitivity. This means better connectivity and greater range, regardless of what standard the connected device supports. 

#4 – Wi-Fi is the weakest link in your IT security

It would be silly to argue that adding Wi-Fi has no effect on IT security. Student, faculty and administrators will all have to be authenticated. However, Wi-Fi security is now strong, standardised and widely available. Passwords aren’t flying through the air, because every certified Wi-Fi device must support AES encryption.

#5 – Upgraded PoE is needed when upgrading APs

With new standards, comes greater power requirements, and when three-stream Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) was made commonplace, it led to APs needing even more power. However, switch upgrades are not necessary to support these newer standards. More advanced APs will shut down the USB port and secondary Ethernet port when PoE power is insufficient for full operation, conserving enough power to keep Wi-Fi speeds at maximum levels.

#6 – Increasing transmit power improves coverage

Wi-Fi coverage simply isn’t coverage unless devices can consistently access the Wi-Fi network. Increasing AP transmit power may increase coverage, but multipath characteristics are different in each environment local to each AP. While increasing the transmit power makes it more likely that APs will be able to consistently send data to devices, it does nothing to make it more likely that APs will be able to receive data from devices. In fact, some devices reduce their transmit power to prolong battery life when connected to a more powerful AP, thus creating worse coverage.

#7 – Password-based Wi-Fi networks are secure

Password-based networks experience high rates of user disruption. Disconnected devices try to connect back to the network as many as 30,000 authentication requests per day per student. The solution to this is certificate-based Wi-Fi. Certificates mean that passwords are not cached or transmitted every connection attempt. In essence, a device registered once should continue to work without disruption. This means happier users and fewer support tickets.

#8 – All Access Points are Created Equal

To many purchasing managers, Wi-Fi is just Wi-Fi. It’s a utility and one AP is as good as the next. While all major brand APs are based on standard chipsets, there is always room to do more above and beyond the standards. Wi-Fi challenges are everywhere on campus, from the grounds itself,  where full-bar coverage and capacity anywhere, anytime is expected, to the residence halls, which have become a nesting ground for gadgets embedded with consumer Wi-Fi. Not all access points are created equally, and it is important that all aspects of design have been optimised based on how the AP will be used or where it will be deployed.

#9 – More broadband solves most problems

For IT professionals there is more to managing a wireless network than purely delivering more broadband. Even the fastest Wi-Fi networks will come to a crawl if there isn’t enough distribution or backhaul. The “problem” could be related to onboarding and passwords, network storms or interference – all unrelated to the bandwidth provided. Performance speaks volumes, and with this newfound knowledge debunking the myths surrounding campus Wi-Fi deployments IT professionals can future-proof their network to provide the next generation of kids instant access to world without walls.