By Claus Hetting, Wi-Fi NOW CEO & Chairman
The University of Michigan (U-M) has deployed what must be the world’s largest Wi-Fi 6E network by a wide margin: The colossal campus network comprises more than 16,000 access points deployed across 225 buildings and outdoor areas*. The network serves more than 63,000 students. It is the first time Wi-Fi 6E (6 GHz) technology has been deployed at this scale. The network was installed in just 8 months, U-M says.
The University of Michigan’s colossal and brand new Wi-Fi 6E deployment is not just the largest in the world – that we know of – its existence should also dispel any doubts about the applicability of Wi-Fi 6E (6 GHz Wi-Fi) technology to campus networks: More than 16,000 legacy Wi-Fi access points have been replaced by 15,500 brand new Wi-Fi 6E APs across some 225 buildings as well as 500 Wi-Fi 6 APs for covering outdoor areas at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses
U-M is one of the largest educational institutions in the US with research budgets – for anything from space exploration to new medical technology – reaching US$1.58 billion in total research expenditures last year. Ravi Pendse, U-M’s Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, says the new network supports a maximum of 70,000 concurrent Wi-Fi connections. Download speeds reach up to 750 megabits per second on the new Wi-Fi 6E network, Ravi Pendse says.
“This Wi-Fi network and service is transformative for U-M. We knew we needed the speeds and capacity afforded by Wi-Fi 6E because so much of the daily activity at U-M happens over Wi-Fi. Huge amounts of data need to be exchanged for U-M to function. So these are among the major reasons why we decided to deploy this network – and of course the Wi-Fi service is not just for connecting personal devices. It connects the full breadth and depth of devices on campus including anything from cameras and sensors to robots,” says Ravi Pendse.
U-M facilities include very large classrooms that accommodate up to 500 students at a time. One design requirements was that all personal devices should at least be able to receive an HD-quality video stream even in the busiest and most densely populated areas. Ravi Pendse says that Wi-Fi 6E technology offers the additional channels – in the 6 GHz band – to do exactly that. “It’s kind of like running Wi-Fi network for a city – but this city is very tech savvy with very diverse requirements,” he says.
Ravi Pendse says U-M students are free to connect any Wi-Fi device they want. And he is understandably proud of the state of the network. “Our core IT network has had an availability of 100% for the past 34 months. We’ve never had an outage. If you include the Wi-Fi access network, our availability is 99.99% and that’s only because some of the older buildings don’t yet have uninterruptible power supplies available,” he says. The new Wi-Fi 6E network is supplied by Aruba Networks (HPE).
The network is likely also a world’s first in another sense: It will be the biggest – that we know of – single Passpoint-capable installation in the world. Ravi Pendse says U-M plans to implement Passpoint authentication campus-wide so that smartphones can seamlessly and securely connect to the U-M Wi-Fi network (and away from a mobile network) without user interaction on the phone (depending on mobile carrier).
Although the Passpoint standard has been around for years, it is still not commonly used for networks of this kind and size. Passpoint has generally been slow in achieving a sizeable service footprint outside of airports and a few other types of venues. Hence the U-M Wi-F 6E network will arguably also be a breakthrough of sorts for the introduction of Passpoint technology for campuses.
The network also covers some of the surrounds and VIP boxes belonging to the Michigan Stadium, the third largest stadium in the world with room for more than 107,000 spectators.
Correction July 26: Outdoor Wi-Fi 6E operation is as yet not permitted by the FCC. U-M says the network consists of 15,500 Wi-Fi 6E APs for indoor deployment and approximately 500 Wi-Fi 6 APs that cover outdoor areas.