The emergence of faster Wi-Fi on the 802.11ac standard has been a big hit with schools and universities that have struggled with slower networks because of the enormous influx of data-sucking smartphones, tablets and laptops used by students.
"We're amazed at the performance of ac. We've been on [802.11n] before and ac is drastically better for actual performance," said Chris Carey, technology director at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, Calif.
Carey recently began a limited deployment of about five 802.11ac access points on the school's 28-acre campus. Eventually, all 160 of the school's existing 802.11n AP's could be replaced as the school launches a new initiative this fall to loan each of its 1,650 students an iPad. The iPad usage will put added strain on the Wi-Fi networks on top of of all the smartphones and personal laptops that the students already carry, Carey said.
Carey said he hopes for a potential of three times the speed of 802.11n with the new APs on 802.11ac, but the bigger need will be to deal with the density of hundreds of wireless devices in a relatively small area of classrooms. "Having more bandwidth is the key, even though the throughput is much better with ac," he said.
The first areas to get ac speeds and bandwidth will be the school's robotics and computer science labs, where the "students are way out there" in using data over wireless, Carey said.
While most 802.11ac is advertised as offering theoretical speeds of 1 Gbps, the realistic speeds Carey is hoping for are 5 Mbps, still a huge improvement.
Bellarmine decided to purchase its 802.11ac APs from Meru Networks, which claims it can triple the data rates of 802.11n. Meru on Tuesday announced it will begin shipping the AP 832 on the 802.11ac specification this quarter at a list price of $1,295, but reduced to $499 if a customers is making an upgrade from an existing Meru 802.11n AP.
Bellarmine can save on the lower cost for an upgrade from existing Meru 802.11n APs, and won't have to upgrade its existing Power over Ethernet switchin -- a further cost savings over other Wi-Fi vendors, Carey said.
Meru is rated about fifth in sales in the Wi-Fi gear market, behind market leader Cisco, but Meru has a global presence, and Carey said Meru has produced great products and provides "awesome" support.
Carey said Meru also uses a special single channel design in its APs which means that he can obtain better throughput than with overlapping channel designs in competing products. An airport near the school causes radio interference, and the school is forced to rely on two 80MHz channels in the Meru APs, which isn't possible with the overlapping 40MHz channels of other products.
The AP 832's single channel design sends data across two dual-band radios that transmit in the 5 GHz band, Meru said.
Meru identified the University of Houston as another AP 832 customer as well as an unnamed K-12 school district in the Northeast with 240 schools and 150,000 students.
"If you are looking today at doing anything new with a wireless network, the only answer is to go ac," Carey advised other IT pros.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is [email protected].