Stuart Waine of Spry Fox Networks outlines vital role of seamless mobile connectivity in schools and universities.

Using technology as an educational tool is not a new concept. The BBC Micro was introduced to the classroom some 40 years ago. What has accelerated unprecedently, fuelled by the pandemic, is the widescale adoption of eLearning platforms accessible via mobile Apps and other digital platforms. When all educational establishments were obliged to close their doors within very short timeframes, combined with multiple lockdowns and social distancing rules, students and teachers have had to embrace digital learning. Many of the platforms and Apps introduced during the pandemic are still being used today to enhance regular teaching methods, improve accessibility and to support collaborative learning and robust digital infrastructures and seamless mobile coverage are imperative to their successful deployment.

Young people are mobile first and expect 24x7 access to the internet

In parallel, universities are also acutely aware of the importance of 24x7 connectivity for their students, who are reliant on their smartphones for every aspect of their lives. From social interactions with friends and families, keeping up to date with lecture times/room changes, extracurricular activities etc. to managing their finances, travel arrangements, paying for goods and services, nights out, downloading videos or gaming, all these activities are done using their smartphones. These very devices are also imperative to their personal safety, wellbeing, and security so to that end, all higher educational establishments must ensure their respective systems and networks are evolving in line with current and future mobile coverage requirements. Mobile signal strength is a major consideration for students completing their UCAS forms and influences their acceptance offers. If universities want to appeal to talented students, they must make sure assured mobile connectivity is factored into their comms infrastructure along with Wi-Fi.

Assured mobile connectivity is integral to routine comms and campus-wide safety

Reliable mobile coverage is just as important for lecturers, tutors and other teaching staff who have also been obliged to embrace digitisation and adjust their teaching methods in line. And assured mobile connectivity isn’t just limited to voice, texting, or messaging services either. It is imperative to the day to day running of all higher educational establishments and takes central stage in any digital transformation project because it is the key enabler to all commercial and IoT comms. Attracting high calibre students, handling enrolment clearing processes, student welfare, student finance, student accommodation, international students, staff communications, CCTV systems, smart lighting, access control, alarm systems, wayfinding, digital signage right through to delivering the high power, low latency processing needed for AI and machine learning - a major factor in pioneering scientific research carried out by universities – reliable mobile coverage is at the heart of all these services and more besides. Moreover, reliable mobile coverage is imperative to campus-wide safety and security as it is needed to initiate 999 calls yet in many universities huge part of their campus are void of mobile phone signals. The underlying digital infrastructures and comms networks needed to effectively handle these complex requirements in higher education are immense, requiring around the clock monitoring to guarantee quality of service, and they will become increasingly important as the world becomes smarter.

Wi-Fi installs take precedence over mobile coverage

Despite all the benefits of assured mobile coverage to all concerned, along with the role it plays in automated applications, many universities struggle to maintain a reliable mobile phone signal in their different buildings because of their complex design architectures, sprawling layouts and internal/subterranean locations. Whilst most universities have installed sophisticated Wi-Fi networks (another expectation of generation Z), sometimes at the expense of reliable mobile coverage, Wi-Fi only networks do not resolve all the connectivity challenges. Not least because onsite personnel needing to access the Wi-Fi network are often obliged to upload software to their personal phones for said phones to connect to the in-house Wi-Fi. There is often a reluctance to do this for privacy reasons and as such they are dependent on cellular connectivity for all their voice and data communications.

2G/3G phase outs and the PSTN switch off will render some DAS installs unfit for purpose

Whilst some universities have addressed their inbuilding coverage challenges by implementing DAS systems, with legacy 2G/3G frequencies being phased out to make way for next generation services, combined with the PSTN switch off on track for December 2023, said DAS systems will need a major revamp. This requires significant capex that some universities just do not have at their disposal because of other digital transformation commitments.

With DAS being neither viable nor feasible in many instances, universities are obliged to resolve their mobile coverage quandaries inhouse by alternative means such as mobile repeaters. IT and staff and facilities managers, however, are not telecoms engineers and installing third party equipment is not their forte. Moreover, a series of repeaters randomly installed will make a poor mobile coverage situation even worse. Not only must they determine the number of users/devices etc that need to be connected, they must consider the outdoor coverage situation by carrying out a detailed mobile coverage site survey as this will determine exactly what is needed.

Universities required enterprise-grade coverage without the associated costs

Universities require an enterprise-grade solution without the associated expense or long timescales involved and this is where repeaters come into their own as they offer a convenient way to improve coverage over multiple rooms and buildings. Installs can be completed in just a few days and the outcome will be efficient communication, faster data transfers, and easier interaction with digital tools. The only caveat is that all deployed repeaters must tick Ofcom’s repeater rules pertaining to usage and not many do.

The need for assured mobile connectivity in universities has never been greater and once 5G becomes universal it will be the very essence of all educational establishments. Securing full network coverage does not have to be an arduous, complex task so long as you have the right tools and knowhow.