DIY Wi-Fi Part 1

wifi logo and text

No matter where you turn these days you see new Wi-Fi hotspots popping up, all fuelled by our desire to be online 24/7 and further evidence (if needed) of the seismic shift in recent years away from traditional computing to mobile anytime, anywhere access. This move towards wireless mobility has of course began to permeate the education sector here with wire-free mobile learning the goal for many of our primary and secondary schools, with laptop carts, tablets  smart phones and even e-readers replacing traditional computer labs. However unlike the commercial sector significant roadblocks exist to frustrate any prospective school getting a reliable multi-access point (roaming) set-up across a school campus. Firstly; insufficient broadband bandwidth, there’s little point in forking out the significant costs of installing Wi-fi building wide when the speed of the broadband on  offer through the Schools Broadband Network (SBN) is significantly below what would be seen as adequate for multi-class, concurrent access. This is the case unfortunately for many primary schools on the basic offering. Secondly; whilst the bandwidth road block isn’t the same issue for secondary schools with 100MB connections, the issue of inadequate networking infrastructure is. Whilst most Irish school’s have adequate wired network infrastructure, Wi-fi infrastructure tends to be non existent or ad-hoc, made up of plethora of random standalone access points cobbled together to provide limited and often problematic access. Anecdotally and from reading the various technology in education forums and mailing lists, it’s clear, school’s all over the the country are clamouring to install reliable whole-school solutions but the costs involved are prohibitive for most. I’ve heard of Principal’s getting quotes  of  €10,000 to €20,000 for medium to large primary schools, right up to €50,000 and beyond for large secondary schools. As I’m not a  network engineer I can’t say whether this is  pricey or whether the enterprise level performance and security of these installs isn’t well worth the investment. However what I can say is that many schools can’t afford the Rolls Royce model. So does that condemn many schools to  a MacGyver-esque multi-access point daisy chain that functions reasonably well (once the cleaner doesn’t unplug one to get the Hoover going)? Or is there an element of using a sledgehammer to  crack a nut with some of the commercial offerings?

do it yourself blackboardAs with many schools, the transition from traditional to mobile computing has been on going for some time in our school and now the vast majority of technology use is in-class rather than lab based. Access is provided via a cart with 20 laptops, a set of twelve iPad 1s and another set of 12 Microsoft Surface tablets, which are flexibly timetabled across the school. Each suite of devices comes with it’s own access point with a separate network name (SSID) and needs to be powered and plugged into our wired network for Internet access. Needless to say, this set-up whilst functional has multiple points of failure, ranging from Access Points going missing right down to them not being switched on. In some cases frustrating experiences with this setup have lead some teachers to use the technology less and less so last year we decided to prioritise whole school Wi-fi but on a budget and we now have a reliable whole school setup that came in circa €2000. It may lack the the bells and whistles of the aforementioned solutions but it works reliably and provides roaming wireless internet access across the School.

Over the next number of posts I’m going to detail the steps we took and the technologies and devices deployed, so stay tuned for Part 2 of DIY (And cleaner-proof) Wi-fi…

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