Wired vs. Wireless...which way to go when it's time to refresh?

Wired vs. Wireless...which way to go when it's time to refresh?

Summary: Can wireless implementations save time, effort, and money in the concrete fortresses of most schools?


One of the schools I work with is looking at a major infrastructure refresh. The hundred odd switches that were state of the art when the school was built 13 years ago are rapidly failing and, combined with thousands of meters of Cat 5 cabling, are too slow to handle drastically increased utilization over that time frame. So the question is, should the school replace all of the hardware and cabling or go wireless?

It's easy and not terribly expensive to achieve at least gigabit speeds with wired connections and off the shelf components. This school even has fiber connecting a head end room to each floor. Each room in the school is wired with at least 4 drops, if not 6 or 8, though, all of which run off of the Cat 5 cable which would prevent actual gigabit throughput. While replacing the switches isn't a big deal since every floor has a wiring closet and all of the switches are centralized, one has to wonder if this is really the best choice.

After all, both Ruckus and Xirrus offer high-bandwidth, long-range wireless solutions that even work in the concrete fortresses that most schools tend to be. They will design appropriate solutions based on your site and requirements and provide total wireless coverage for a school. Former ZDNet blogger George Ou even describes ways to make high end wireless routers cheaply from commodity parts.

Wireless means not pulling new cable and far fewer switches being replaced. It also means investing in technology that isn't going to hit those gigabit speeds that allow everything from telephony to multicasting videos. Not that modern wireless (and I'm not talking Apple Airports here) isn't fast. It's very fast, but there's still nothing quite like Cat 6 to the desktop with a solid fiber backbone.

So what's a school to do?

In fact, there isn't an easy answer here. However, the companies that sell both wired and wireless equipment will be more than happy to come out and make recommendations. Obviously, recommendations from Ruckus probably aren't going to sound like this:

"No, wireless really isn't the best choice here. The interference from building materials and equipment is just too great. Give Cisco a call - they have some great managed switches and I bet you can get a deal on some cheap Cat 6."

However, if the solution that a wireless-only company proposes starts sounding mighty expensive and hard questions about performance, range, and numbers of clients aren't answered to your satisfaction, then some red flags should be going up. At the same time, companies like HP and Cisco sell both wired and wireless solutions. Their wireless products may not be in quite the same league as those installed by the big wireless players, but the pre-sales engineers who visit your school are happy to sell you whichever system from their respective companies will perform the best. They may be a much better source of objective opinions on wired vs. wireless than providers who only offer a single solution.

All that being said, schools with aging infrastructure owe it to themselves and their users to take a hard look at wireless. No more pulling cables, no more loops from careless students or techs, centralized management, and better service for an increasingly mobile set of users...It's hard to argue with some of the major benefits of wireless, isn't it?

Ask yourself a few questions before those pre-sales engineers come on out, though:

  • How fast does it need to be?
  • What sorts of files are moving across your network now? In 2 years?
  • How long do you want the system to last?
  • What sort of backbone already exists? Is there a good reason to stick with a vendor if your backbone is staying intact?
  • Just how much cable will you need to pull? Rewiring a building is time-consuming, labor-intensive, potentially hazardous (you know there's asbestos in those ceilings, right?), messy, and probably more expensive than you'd expect.
  • What sorts of resources do you have to help with a major wiring project? How much time do you have? And can you tap local telecoms or cable distributors for donated cable?

One last thought: Know when to get help. Just because you're a tech director, network tech, or even a really savvy building principal doesn't mean that you're going to know everything there is to know about the state of the art in cost-effective enterprise networking. The pre-sales engineers will help you, but so will parents or community members in the industry, your favorite systems integrator, or consultants who specialize in infrastructure projects. This decision is simply too big and too important to not admit when you're out of your depth and need some outside expertise.

Topics: Mobility, Networking, Wi-Fi

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • I would have to think wired at this point

    Schools are relying more and more on video. Video is getting better (and larger). New applications are expected to only increase bandwidth usage (video conferencing with classrooms across the globe...).
    If nothing else, wire the most intensive area with Cat 6 and pilot wireless in another area. The school should be able to negotiate a low cost proof of concept with a vendor.
  • RE: Wired vs. Wireless...which way to go when it's time to refresh?

    The best way to tackle this is investing in equipment that will keep up with the next 10 years of evolution in datatranfers quantity over your network. Beceause the main factor is the labour that will go into the upgrade of your network. The equipment itself is not that expensive anymore!

    Wired = easier troubleshooting and assured bandwidth.
    Wireless = easy access for mobile users (suchs as students in a school).

    The future points will ask for more bandwidth as filesizes keep growing but at the same time, 'mobile' is the keyword in most cases.

    For a school especially, you need to consider where you want wireless. It might not be" so interresting to have you students surfing the web while they should be paying attention to the professor in front of the class. Limiting wireless to lunchrooms/playgrounds/mediarooms/teachersrooms might be the best way to go.

    You must consider that theoretically you can connect to maximum 20 wireless users to a single access point. In practice you can have 40 people connecting to one AP thus dividing your AP bandwidth by 40. This might result in timeouts for many applications due to the low available bandwidth.

    When looking at wires, connections between switches should be at all times, fiber, multiple fibers per devices is adviseable. For redundancy and throughput. As fiber becomes cheaper and copper more expensive (and the real cost is the labour for placing the cables) => the more fiber the better. It is also more secure as a fiber cannot be so easily eavesdropped. The more switches you put, the less copper wiring to the end devices is necessary. 2 fibers can give enough bandwith to a 48 port switch. Placing the 2 fibers will be much cheaper then 48 copper cables + it can travel over larger distances.

    My conclusion?
    Go wired and add some accesspoints here and there where they could be really usefull. Or maybe even ask a provider to install its own accesspoints on your school grounds. Let the people who really find wireless necessary to pay for it themselves ....
    • RE: Wired vs. Wireless...which way to go when it's time to refresh?

      @Frank.M I agree that a mixed environment is the way to go but limiting wireless to "lunchroom/playgrounds/mediarooms/facultyrooms" ignores the use of laptops, laptop carts, and other mobile devices in the classroom, where they are being used to support curriculum.
      Jorge Vega
  • Understand that you will

    have to refresh the infrastructure every 10-15 years.
    No matter what you do.
  • The answer is probably a combination of both.

    Since you already have a lot of wire, keep using it, particularly for high bandwidth applications. Supplement it with wireless for lower bandwidth applications, increase the total number of connections and extend service into areas where you don't currently have it - without running new wire.
    • RE: Wired vs. Wireless...which way to go when it's time to refresh?

      @cornpie I agree. While running cable is a cost, running cable through pre-existing runs isn't as much of a cost. If you don't invest in the upgrade now you're just deferring the cost to a later time where Cat5 won't just be a speed bump but a complete obstacle. I think the best tech solutions are those that meet the needs of the present without sacrificing future flexibility.
      Jorge Vega
  • RE: Wired vs. Wireless...which way to go when it's time to refresh?

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  • RE: Wired vs. Wireless...which way to go when it's time to refresh?

    With the commonplace occurrence of high definition video conferencing, VOIP with HD video, Digital Media Suite, online text books, one-on-one student initiatives (pads, laptop and netbook student deployments), wireeless point of sale, schools allowing their local communities to connect to the internet, peer-to-peer apps, IP Physical Security, IPTV (access control and video surveillance) the network is getting more complex, driven by video adoption, demanding of better speeds to the core and more mission critical to its owner. The answer most of my K/12 customers now choose are Meru Access Points connected to gig access layer switches with 10 gig uplinks and a 10 gig core. Ultimately you have pervasive wireless coverage and a rock solid infrastructure to support you over the next 5-10 when 40 and 100 gig core will be possibly commonplace in more sophisticated larger schools. I would also recommend solid management tools for your wireless networks, good network filtering/data security and consideration of cat 7 when it makes sense.