No matter what method of provision you have chosen, you must be sure that your Broadband & WiFi has the capacity and coverage needed to serve the teachers and pupils at your school. This must be right from the start.
There is no substitute for having a professional survey carried out on your infrastructure by one or more of the major providers that are experienced in equipping your type of building. This is a very technical and complex area and one that is constantly developing. On top of that the design of your building and the number of devices you are looking to support will have significant impact on the type of infrastructure you will be requiring. Because of this we cannot begin to tell you what you need however we can give you an overview of the key elements that you will need to look at and a guide to what you should be asking prospective suppliers.
Your Broadband feed is the life blood of your infrastructure and your bandwidth will need to be able to satisfy all of your 1:1 programme needs. When you are looking for a broadband service provider you should be looking for proven reliability with the maximum uptime possible. If you have the ability to shop around for broadband providers then we strongly recommend this but many schools still take their service directly from their local authority which is subcontracted out to a service provider. This service may or may not be the right one for your school and you may have to fight to get released from the contract so you can source a more suitable provider.
Most primary schools will tend to need less bandwidth than a secondary school so it’s weighing up the quality of service and the size of the feed coming into the school that is absolutely critical. Schools that are using lots of internet material such as YouTube and iPlayer, for example, will need a much larger pipe coming into the school.
It is very important for schools to understand that the quality of the wireless network is not just about the access points that you put on the wall.
Wireless is communication between two points with one being the device. Very often in schools there can be hundreds or thousands of devices and it's very important that schools look at the quality of the devices that they will need to access those wireless networks.
If you consider a wireless network like a road network: you commission a fantastic, four lane, flat motorway but if you put slow, old-fashioned cars on it they won’t perform any better than they would on a windy country lane! So when you're buying, maybe hundreds or thousands of devices to put on a high quality (and expensive!) wireless network, it is really important to look in detail at the devices too and ensure that they can make full use of the network.
The right wireless infrastructure
Getting the wireless infrastructure right can save endless frustration and cost in the future.
Often people's perception of wireless is it just works - and it does work well at home because you don't have that many devices and you normally only have one access point. It's a completely different ball game in a school where you maybe have hundreds or even thousands of devices on the network that all want to log in at 9 o'clock! It’s not so critical at home if something takes an extra couple of minutes to download but when a teacher is at the front of the class with 30 children to please, any delay is (a) lost teaching time end (b) can lead to behavioural issues. So having something that is robust, fast and that will get all students online quickly and working with the minimum of fuss is absolutely critical.
There are a few things you can do to make sure you have full coverage throughout the campus:
- Get a physical site survey from your supplier (note that it may be chargeable but can often be free too)
- Get a desktop design done
- Remember it is important to note the thickness and types of wall
- How many devices are likely to be used in each room
- What types of applications are likely to be used
- Take advantage of free software tools available where potentially the network teams within schools can borrow equipment from the manufacturer and test signal strengths around the building - but it is always best to get this conducted by a professional.
Common problems & challenges
Knowing the mistakes others have made, and how they have overcome particular challenges.
Here are a few of the common mistakes that you can make sure to avoid:
Things will change in the school so don't assume that when you put in your wireless network that’s it! You need to provide good access where students and teachers need it. Usage of certain areas may change, pupils may congregate in places that you didn’t expect, you need to be prepared to review and update your network to satisfy demand.
One other area that you will see affecting wireless performance is not actually the wireless per-se but an increase in people wanting to use heavy internet-based applications and the internet pipe just isn't big enough. Very often people have the misconception that it is the fault of the wireless when actually it's the broadband connection coming into school.
Non-wireless interference such as burglar alarms and fire alarms operating wirelessly with PIR sensors can hugely affect the performance of wireless in particular spectrum. It is important to highlight these to your provider and make sure you find a product that can move away from that interference and operate in a different spectrum.
Consumer devices like tablets are designed for the home. When you open up your tablet at home you connect to the wireless and you may roam off to the other end of your house to look at the website and you still maintain that connection, even though you're a long way away from the actual wireless access point in your house. They are designed to do that, the tablet manufacturers wouldn't want you to disconnect and then have to go back to somewhere else in your house to reconnect and look at your website, so it is designed to be "sticky". When you introduce hundreds or thousands of those "sticky" type consumer devices onto your network this has important implications for the overall bandwidth within the network because a slow device hanging on to an access point will slow down others connected to the same access point. So find a product that can cope with that issue and maintain overall system bandwidth.
Some do's and don't's
Every complex installation needs to follow some basic rules that are ignored at your peril!
- Buying cheap when it comes to wireless clients and wireless infrastructure will always mean buying twice, because the user experience will not be good enough for effective teaching and learning.
- Always set aside a realistic budget for the project and don’t just opt for the cheapest quote!
- Speak to other schools that have deployed a campus-wide learning environment and learn from their mistakes.
- Talk to a number of device suppliers and find out who they would trust to put in an effective wireless infrastructure for your school
Things to ask your prospective wireless network suppliers
Finally here are some really important questions you need to ask prospective suppliers.
- What is the bandwidth into my school and is it enough?
- Do I need to improve the pipe coming into my school?
- Will my current wireless network cope with the influx of connections?
- What’s going to be the effect of bringing tablets onto my network?
- Will my network cope with the applications the students devices want to run?
- What about voice, can I do away with walkie-talkies and give wireless phones to my staff?
- Will the network be able to support, at full speed in both spectrums, all the types of devices students bring in – important if you are considering a ‘Bring your own device’ programme?
- How will I connect them securely and easily to my network – what security considerations do I need to think about?
- How can I monitor what those students are doing on their own device?
- Do I really need an ICT suite any more?
- How many schools have they supplied within the UK – take up references. Ask them how their product behaves and what their support is like.