Caffeinated thoughts about wi-fi and our world

WiFi, Carpet, and Paint: Which one is not like the other?

A couple of weeks ago an architectural design firm reached out to the company I work for with an encouraging, yet frustrating request: Could we help provide a cost per square foot to install network infrastructure in a small, rural school construction project?

First, let me address the encouraging part. For years, network design and implementation professionals have lamented the lack of attention given to wired and wireless networks in new and renovated school buildings. Communities would invest tens of millions of tax dollars in beautiful, otherwise functional buildings for learning, performing arts, and athletics with the goal of improving the potential of their children and grandchildren, yet the essential elements of data network infrastructure were treated as an afterthought in many cases until just a few years ago. It's no exaggeration to say that school technology directors and CIOs were often not invited to a single design planning meeting until well after the 90% completion phase. Invariably, too few (or no) data network cabling pathways and port locations were planned, and when they were included, locations were often so poorly chosen that they were effectively unusable. Main and intermediate data closets were rarely included, forcing expensive switches and telecommunications equipment to share space with custodial closets. When these were included, little regard was given for acceptable Ethernet cabling distances, forcing schools to shoehorn in extra fiber-optic backhaul cabling and more of those switches mounted above mop sinks.

Networks just aren't designed this way, and for good reasons.

In the last five years or so, architects, to their credit, began to consider technology infrastructure earlier in the design phase. This improved or eliminated many of the problems I mentioned above. Our form has even been invited to collaborate and offer input in the design phase of some recent projects! My co-workers love these opportunities, as years of experience in instructional technology solutions across hundreds of school districts have led to many daydreams of helping design collaborative teaching and learning environments that could adapt to future needs as seamlessly as possible. We're getting closer, but a couple of challenges remain. Enter the request for network by the foot.

Before my colleagues in the business of network infrastructure pause here for the inevitable belly laugh, let's level set in the interest of fairness. Architectural firms work exactly this way for a huge percentage of the project. For a school building of a given grade level range in a given region, items such as floor tile, carpet, paint, electrical wiring, light fixtures, ceiling tile, etc. are estimated by the square foot for the purposes of setting a budgetary estimate. It's borne of necessity. After all, before a single contractor places a bid or a permit is filed, a school district requires fairly accurate estimate of cost to construct or remodel a facility. These estimates also need to be created in a flexible format so that school district leaders can scale back or add square footage as needs are refined during the planning stages. Architects are typically busy with multiple projects at once, so a call from a Superintendent the day before a school board meeting requesting a revised price if four new classrooms are added to the first floor can be accommodated realistically if the cost methodology is simplified as much as possible. 

So our first challenge is this: Networks just aren't designed this way, and for good reasons. We employ a network design methodology that begins with a needs analysis. Questions include:

  • How will the network be used in the classroom, as well as other collaborative and administrative areas?
  • Will video be a significant part of