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Designing Wi-Fi for modern learning environments

Achieving good Wi-Fi coverage across a site requires expert understanding of how the built environment affects RF signals and which technologies are appropriate to solve issues.

Te Pā o Rākaihautū School, a composite (year 1-15) school in Linwood, Christchurch, had been struggling with poor Wi-Fi coverage and speed.

Principal Terina Tahau says the problems were adversely affecting students' learning.  “Teaching uses a hybrid of models to better meet needs and accelerate understanding. Wi-Fi issues meant our students couldn’t access Google Classroom or get online help resources such as Khan Academy or do some of their research. It was forcing us to return to a non-digital learning style and wasn’t conducive to students’ learning achievement.”

In addition to having an impact on learning, the inconsistent Wi-Fi also affected administration tasks, such as marking absences and accessing student contact numbers or health details.

Torque IP was approached by the Ministry of Education to investigate the problems, make recommendations, and manage their implementation. Torque IP ICT consultant, Rey Sidon, says the school had undergone several ICT upgrades over the years, including installing Wi-Fi access points and gateways that weren’t well-placed and led to coverage and speed issues.

Sidon says Torque IP started with a full site survey. “The site inspection included an audit of the Wi-Fi RF signal propagation, RSSI levels, signal-to-noise ratio levels, rogue access points, frequencies, channel widths, and the channels in use. We modelled and simulated a Wi-Fi signal strength heat map, showing exactly how the current setup was performing throughout the school.”

The school’s old Wi-Fi setup had resulted in minimal coverage in some parts of the school, including the hall, admin areas and B Block. C Block relied on a wireless bridge connection that failed on rainy days. Various solutions, such as additional access points and the use of a 4G mobile data hotspot, had not resolved the issues.

Designing an effective network requires more than just getting data, says Sidon. “You’ve got to know how to interpret the results and then apply that understanding to creating the optimal solution. This is the skill we bring to problems like this, with decades of experience in analysing, understanding, and resolving Wi-Fi network problems.”

A before and after heat map of RF signals demonstrates the value of the signal audit.

“We used the heat map to design our solution, so that we’d be sure we were getting the coverage that met the Ministry’s standards and the school’s needs,” says Sidon.

Terina Tahau says that the new setup has improved things greatly. “Classrooms aren’t filled with encyclopaedias anymore. Our biggest issue was that the Wi-Fi problems stopped us creating a richer learning environment and put limitations on the learning opportunities for our students. We can now do things we couldn’t effectively do before.”

Torque IP’s solution involved additional access points in optimal locations to maximise coverage and improve handover of clients between APs. There would also be an upgraded fibre backbone to B Block with a new main cabinet setup. Two smaller, hard to access cabinets, would also be replaced with a new single cabinet, that allowed proper access to all network equipment and components. Fibre would also be routed to C Block to replace the inadequate wireless bridge.

Torque issued an RFP and selected a primary contractor to do the work. Torque IP inspected the work in progress and once complete re-audited the Wi-Fi coverage to ensure the result was as per the designed specifications. Finally, all documentation relating to the ICT setup was updated and handed to the school to make future ICT servicing easier.

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