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As Schools Go, So Goes the Wi-Fi Nation

Meraki recently released the results of a study of on-campus WLAN usage, announced a “Wireless For Schools” program for K-12 schools and districts, and will soon introduce a site survey app for the iPhone.


In a recent series of announcements, Meraki released the results of a study looking at wireless LAN usage on higher education campuses, introduced a $40-per-student “Wireless For Schools” wireless network solution for K-12 schools and districts, and announced plans to launch an iPhone-based site survey application.

On-campus WLAN usage

Company co-founder and CEO Sanjit Biswas says the idea for the higher education study came in response to a trend that the company’s executives had noticed in the wireless market over the past few years. “Whatever goes on in higher ed ends up happening in the rest of the world a few years later—so higher ed ends up being essentially a crystal ball for wireless trends,” he says.

To get a good look into that crystal ball, the company surveyed 10,000 randomly selected client devices at 24 higher education institutions across North America, then compared that data with results from 10,000 randomly selected client devices in 2,116 general usage networks.

In many cases, the differences were striking. While 36 percent of on-campus devices were 802.11n-enabled, only 21 percent of off-campus devices were. And while Windows XP/Vista is the leading operating system both on- and off-campus, Mac OS X represents a growing market share, appearing on 24 percent of devices on-campus, but only 14 percent of devices off-campus.

Perhaps most importantly, students consume 3.3 times more bandwidth per device than the general population—and on one campus that Meraki examined more closely, Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, mobility is particularly notable: students have an average of 1.54 devices each, and 60 percent of all devices connect to the wireless network from 10 or more different locations on the campus.

For typical daytime campus use, Biswas says, that makes perfect sense. “Once they come back to their dorm room, they essentially plant their laptop on their desk and it doesn’t move that much—but during the day, they’re at the student center, they’re at various classrooms, they’re working outside…and it’s not uncommon to just pull your laptop out when you’ve got a few minutes free,” he says.

One statistic was the same both on and off-campus: use of the iPhone, at 15 percent of all devices in both locations. “That says there’s great penetration of these devices, and that it’s essentially to the point where everyone that wants an iPhone has one—which wasn’t the case about a year or two ago: it was a novel device back then,” Biswas says. “Now, there’s millions of these units shipped.”

The clearest lesson that Meraki takes from the study, Biswas says, is that it’s reasonable to expect people to be deploying larger scale wireless LAN systems than they did in the past. “It’s no longer a novelty, or something that you have only in specific areas of the office—it’s something that you deploy everywhere, whether it’s a campus environment or not,” he says.

Wireless for schools

In October, Meraki launched its “Wireless For Schools” program, offering a fixed price of $40 per student to K-12 schools and districts setting up a comprehensive 802.11n wireless LAN—as long as the purchase is completed by December 22, 2009. “We decided to simplify our pricing, at least for the K-12 market, to a point where it was something that they could just instantly calculate,” Biswas says.

The idea is to make it as easy as possible for administrators to determine the cost of installing a network. “Every school administrator knows how many students they have at their school, and now they can instantly know how much it would cost them to put in a wireless LAN,” Biswas says. “And we found that, for a lot of IT guys that are working in K-12 schools or at the district, this saved them a ton of time.”

And while the cost to Meraki might vary depending on the size of the campus itself, Biswas says, there’s always a significant discount involved. “Everyone gets some kind of cost savings versus what they would be paying at list…and then, on top of that, for larger deals with school districts for example where they might have 20 sites, we are offering volume discounts,” he says.

In addition, Biswas notes, any school that receives an E-Rate grant can apply it to the Meraki installation as well. “So that itself is like an 80 percent discount for these schools…we worked closely with the Universal Service Fund, who administers E-Rate, as well as some consultants, to put together a program that just simplifies the whole process,” he says.

An iPhone site survey app

Finally, Meraki soon plans to introduce a site survey app for the iPhone. “We’ve submitted it to the App Store, and so we’re in the approval process right now…but it’s something that we are offering to customers and to partners on a case-by-case basis, where we can essentially ship them an iPod—and we hope to make it a freely available app by the end of the year,” Biswas says.

The app’s functionality, Biswas says, is extremely straightforward. “In the past, doing a site survey involved laptops and additional hardware,” he says. “What we’re able to do now is essentially put the functionality in the iPhone, so you can see all the networks that are nearby, drill down to access points, check signal strengths, check which channel they’re on and that sort of thing.”

And for the average administrator, Biswas says, doing that with an iPhone can be much easier than carrying a laptop around. “If you have an end-user complaining, ‘Hey, I keep getting dropped over in this corner of the office,’ you can basically walk over there with your iPhone, hit the button, and see what the signal strength is—and use that to diagnose whether you need to put in another access point or not,” he says.

Jeff Goldman is a veteran technology journalist based in Southern California.