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School adopts Wi-Fi 6 in early Wi-Fi upgrade case study

High-capacity wireless can help close the gap between urban and rural schools. Here's how an aggressive Wi-Fi upgrade strategy helped one district meet its community's needs.

Located more than 100 miles from a major city, Wild Rose School Division in Rocky Mountain House, Alta., has many students and teachers with no internet access at home, making the district's wireless network of critical importance.

"We want our kids to live in a digitally connected world, similar to any urban center on the planet," said Jaymon Lefebvre, director of IT services for the Wild Rose School Division. "Our mandate is to support learning first, but we also focus on ensuring capacity for personal use."

The school district has used Cisco Meraki wireless gear for roughly a decade, becoming an early adopter of cloud-native networking and adopting an aggressive annual Wi-Fi upgrade strategy, in which it rolls out new gear in stages, starting with high-density areas. By refreshing limited areas of the network at a time, Lefebvre said the district minimizes disruptions and ensures constant, iterative improvement.

"We never want to find ourselves trying to catch up with a negative impact in the classroom," Lefebvre said, recalling one time they delayed a comprehensive wireless upgrade for budgetary reasons -- only to have the network buckle under unforeseen traffic growth at the beginning of the school year. "We were then under the gun to try and force a refresh in the middle of September, which was not ideal at all."  

In that instance, Lefebvre said his team was able to deploy new Cisco Meraki access points (APs) across the entire district network in just days, thanks to the easy swap-in, swap-out nature of the gear. Years later, they still use Cisco Meraki, recently becoming early adopters of its prestandard Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) APs.

"We anticipate that, in September, we will start seeing Wi-Fi 6 devices come in," he said. "We usually see a huge influx of new devices in September and then again in January, after Christmas."

The school district has an open BYOD policy, and with 4,800 students across 18 schools, Lefebvre's team sees thousands upon thousands of clients -- some new and some legacy.  

"802.11ac Wave 2 dealt with the need for high-capacity, symmetric, synchronous connections, but it doesn't really work well in environments with both 802.11ac devices and previous generations," Lefebvre said.

We want our kids to live in a digitally connected world, similar to any urban center on the planet.
Jaymon LefebvreDirector of IT services, Wild Rose School Division

To support better throughput and optimize service for all devices -- particularly in high-density gathering areas, like cafeterias -- his team wants flexibility to use both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands, which the new 802.11ax Wi-Fi upgrade affords. Lefebvre said he also anticipates the 802.11ax technology will extend the battery life of devices.

"That has tremendous impact in the classroom, because we're not reliant on charging the devices throughout the eight-hour school day," he said.

Ultimately, Lefebvre said he does not expect students or faculty to notice a difference in performance following the Wi-Fi upgrade, which he considers a sign they've succeeded in achieving and maintaining sufficient capacity.  

"IT in education has moved from sort of being a novelty to actually being the equivalent of lights-on in the classroom," he said. "Our job now is to leapfrog ahead of the teachers and students."

As an example, he cited a recent, mysterious spike in network traffic across the district -- all of which directed to Google Earth. Lefebvre was at a loss until his wife, Jennifer Lefebvre -- director of learning and instruction at the school district -- told him Google had just launched the new Carmen Sandiego game in the maps app.

"The challenge in education now is not controlling access, but ensuring we're not restricting access based on artificial constraints," he said. "We're never stagnant." 

This was last published in May 2019

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