Leading the Way with Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)

Tips for gaining an education-ready solution.

GUEST COLUMN | by Dorothy Stanley

From the soaring number of connected devices, applications and next-gen learning models to the expanding student ‘grading’ of educational facilities based on connectivity quality, K-12 and higher ed campuses face as many new challenges as ever.

To help cope with these realities, many educators are looking at Wi-Fi 6, the new wireless standard based on work by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). It’s designed to deliver the best possible experiences in high-density, mobility-centric environments, whether indoors or out. Here’s what you need to know as you consider your options.

Wi-Fi 6: The 411

Anticipating the explosion of device densities in 2014, the IEEE started developing 802.11ax (now also called Wi-Fi 6) as the successor to 802.11ac (now known as Wi-Fi 5).

To ensure interoperability and security among mobile product manufacturers, the Wi-Fi Alliance – the industry association that owns the “Wi-Fi” trademark – recently released the accompanying certifications in its Wi-Fi Certified 6 program. This has paved the way in accelerating the availability of Wi-Fi 6 devices and infrastructure.

Educators leading the way 

With access points built upon the Wi-Fi 6 standard now available, educational institutions of all sizes are embracing the technology.

At the K-12 level, Indiana’s Hamilton Southeastern Schools is relying on Wi-Fi 6 to help transform its new Southeastern Elementary School into a 21st Century learning and collaboration hub for more than 600 students.

‘With access points built upon the Wi-Fi 6 standard now on the market, educational institutions across the spectrum are embracing the technology.’

The school’s innovative, open-concept design includes pods, or neighborhoods, of classrooms circled around common areas that open to outdoor courtyards for easy incorporation of outdoor curriculum.

Hamilton’s deployment also incorporates Apple TVs into its learning spaces and outfits each student, as appropriate, with an iPad or other mobile device. Wi-Fi 6 infrastructure ensures classrooms of 30 students, and common areas of 100, can easily accommodate the device densities and applications required to attain the district’s goals.

In higher ed, Toronto-based Seneca College is adopting Wi-Fi 6 to benefit its existing 100,000 students and faculty as well as to continue attracting top-notch individuals. With eight campuses spread across the greater Toronto area, Seneca is upgrading its infrastructure to Wi-Fi 6 as a key differentiator.

One of Seneca’s campus buildings, a mix of classrooms and faculty offices, has already completely transitioned to Wi-Fi 6. In a planned new administrative building, Wi-Fi 6 will be an enabler of an untethered open office environment.

What makes Wi-Fi 6 different from 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5)?

Early K-12 and higher ed adopters are excited about the fundamentally new capabilities in Wi-Fi 6 as compared to previous wireless standards, which primarily addressed speed. These include a focus on improving the efficiency of data exchange, saving on client battery life and enhancing experiences for all clients, including in congested, high-density locations. In addition, leading Wi-Fi 6 solutions customize radio channel usage to match the traffic offered by multiple client devices.

Key Wi-Fi 6 capabilities make this possible, including:

Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA). This technology reduces delays by permitting multiple applications to transmit simultaneously, which is particularly ideal for smaller packet applications that are latency sensitive, such as voice applications and IoT. In Wi-Fi 5, devices must transmit data sequentially to an access point (AP), requiring connected units to wait for their “turn.”

Enhanced multi-user multiple-input multiple-output (MU-MIMO). MIMO was first introduced in Wi-Fi 5 as creating a “4-lane highway” from a single lane street. Enhanced MU-MIMO takes it a step further by expanding the roadway to the equivalent of an 8-lane freeway. Similar to OFDMA, it’s a multi-user enabler that reduces latency for larger packet applications like video and large files.

Target Wake Time (TWT). With this capability, APs schedule data transmissions with client and IoT devices, reducing device energy consumption.

Throughput increase up to 4x for all clients in dense environments, as compared to Wi-Fi 5. This results from a variety of other standards advances that provide significant experience improvements, especially in dense deployments.

How do I choose the right Wi-Fi 6 solution?

Just like with previous standards, some infrastructure solutions are layering on innovations that offer significant benefits to K-12 and higher education. Features that can help you meet budget targets and achieve sustainability goals while boosting wireless security for students, staff and parents include:

AI-powered optimization for delivering consistent user experiences by leveraging machine learning to optimize the RF channels, bandwidth and power requirements. Look for offerings that also automatically group Wi-Fi 6-capable devices onto available Wi-Fi 6 APs. This enables you to economize, by maintaining a mixed AP environment, while still ensuring you can take full advantage of multi-user capabilities, such as OFDMA and MU-MIMO, in locations where Wi-Fi 6 capabilities matter the most.

Smart traffic control allows for easily applying quality of service (QoS) policies based on traffic, user and device types via deep packet inspection. The resulting user experience gains can assist you with reducing help desk tickets and costs.

AI-enabled utilization monitoring for energy savings improves efficiency when demand ceases, such as overnight or on weekends, by putting Wi-Fi 6 APs into a deep sleep and waking them up when demand resumes.

Intelligent power monitoring permits retaining your existing switching environment until you’re ready for a refresh that goes beyond 30 watts of PoE per switch port. This capability enables Wi-Fi 6 APs to dynamically deactivate features as needed, based on policies you set, while still allowing the APs to deliver the connectivity you need.

Enhanced Authentication Security preserves the convenience of open networks while reducing risks by adding WPA3, the WPA2 successor, and Enhanced Open, which encrypts traffic in open wireless networks. Leading Wi-Fi 6 solutions integrate support for both WPA3 and the Enhanced Open protocol.

Universal IoT connectivity enables deploying a single wireless network with the most common types of IoT connectivity protocols – Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Zigbee – by integrating all three into Wi-Fi 6 APs. This can substantially reduce the capital and operating expenses required for satisfying the acceleration in IoT device demands.

Although not all Wi-Fi 6 solutions can meet the unique demands of educational environments, there are options that deliver the right capabilities for your community. Selecting the best fit is a matter of understanding which solution provides robust features that are easily managed and help ensure your deployment is future-proof.

Dorothy Stanley is an HPE Fellow and head of standards strategy at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. She currently chairs the IEEE 802.11 Working Group and the IEEE 802.11REVmd Task Group. Stanley has also chaired the IEEE 802.11REVmc, 802.11REVmb and IEEE 802.11v Wireless Network Management task groups. For the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA), Stanley has served in numerous leadership roles and is currently chair/vice-chair of the location and security task groups. Prior to joining Aruba in 2005, Stanley was a Consulting Member of the Technical Staff at Agere Systems for Wavelan products and a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff at Lucent Technologies and AT&T Bell Laboratories. Contact her through LinkedIn. 

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