Wi-Fi has quickly become an expectation for government users akin to a utility.
Increasingly, IT departments are ditching a building-by-building approach in favor of a single campus network that covers all facilities and eases management. But building that network can be challenging. In addition, states and localities must ensure the wireless network can accommodate an ever-increasing volume of users and bandwidth-intensive traffic.
Here, public-sector IT leaders share some advice from the trenches on how they build enviable Wi-Fi networks.
It sounds simple, but building a robust wireless network all starts with determining exactly what’s needed. Planning is the crucial first step. In Kingsville, Texas, planning started in November 2014; the last of the internal access points (APs) will be in place by this summer, when the government moves into its new city hall building.
“Sit down and figure out what your network actually looks like and what it’s going to look like once you get to your endpoint,” says Kyle Benson, help desk coordinator for the city of Kingsville. “We had multiple subnets. We had to figure out how those needed to be laid out once we brought everything together as one network.”
With a total of 22 access points, Kingsville will bring 11 government sites around the city onto a single 802.11n/ac wireless network.
Solid planning also enables organizations to build a future-proofed network that exceeds their current needs and delivers the high performance required to accommodate growth.
“When you’re designing the network, build to a higher density than you would expect at the beginning,” advises Jeff Rohrs, chief technologist for Pinellas County, Fla. Not only does this practice extend the life span of the network, but it allows IT managers to increase the minimum data rate, resulting in a better user experience.
In hot and humid Kingsville, where the plan called for point-to-point wireless propagation using APs affixed to the city’s water towers, selecting equipment that could stand up to the weather was an important consideration. The team there chose ruggedized products designed for outdoor use (Aruba MSR 2000s and 4000s) to ensure that the network could stand up to its environment. Inside, Kingsville implemented a mix of Aruba IAP 205 and 225 APs. HPE switches and Dell SonicWALL firewalls constitute the rest of the network hardware.
Because of the network’s lean size, Kingsville does not need an all-encompassing management software solution. “We are able to monitor traffic through our firewalls and tweak individual components as needed because we have interconnectivity across all of our sites now,” says Benson.
For Pinellas County, building a robust network meant looking to the future and creating an upgrade-ready system. The county chose a suite of Cisco products that fit the bill.
“We purchased at perhaps the perfect time, because the 802.11ac standard was being ratified and finalized,” explains Rohrs. “Our system is capable of upgrading to 802.11ac when we’re ready to move to that capability.”
In Pennsylvania, Lackawanna County’s wireless network offers more than just a strong connection. CIO Jeff Mando says the network was designed to snap on public- safety backhaul for next-generation 911 land mobile radio communications. Without this ability, county 911 officials would not have been able to achieve their communications improvement goals.
Besides resolving long-standing gaps in 911 coverage, the deployment will help Lackawanna County continue to save money. “911 is now switching fire and EMS radio from leased circuits to the wireless network and anticipates annual savings of $100,000,” Mando says.
By the same token, IT managers shouldn’t overlook potential costs. Bear in mind that there may be basic preliminary work required to prepare some locations before they can be brought online, as was the case in Pinellas County. “We did have to do a network overhaul and refresh switching equipment before the wireless could be deployed in a few of our remote sites,” says Rohrs.
The network may be in place, but that doesn’t mean the project is complete.
“Take the necessary time for thorough surveys to find the weak areas and explore all avenues to overcome them,” advises Kimberly Walker, Lackawanna County’s wireless quality-of-service administrator.
An anecdote from Kingsville’s experience is telling in this regard. “The only problem we really ran into that was significant enough to mention was being unsure of the true distance of the shots we were trying to make between radios,” says Benson.
Initially, the team used Google Maps to measure the distance between sites. However, they soon discovered that those measurements were simply not accurate enough to get the link up and maximize it.
“We needed to get that distance down to a matter of feet,” Benson says.
Once Kingsville had the precise measurements, the network performance improved dramatically. “The first site to go online, we actually doubled their Internet speed from what they originally had,” says Benson.
A project of this magnitude needs a team behind it. Kingsville’s team stressed the importance of working closely with vendors and service providers to find the best possible solution.
“From beginning to end, we scoped this with a vendor and told them exactly what we were looking for,” says Benson. “CDW was wonderful. They helped us put everything together; they helped us figure out all of the configurations.”
Listing all the companies that played a role in building out Kingsville’s wireless network, David Mason, director of IT and purchasing, puts it simply: “We’re a three-person IT department.” In addition to Benson, he drew on the expertise of Systems Specialist Tony Verdin to complete the project. Another key source of support for government IT departments are the officials they work for.
“Without the help of the Board of County Commissioners and Business Technology Services Board in giving us the funding and support to drive this project to completion, you are not going to get a large county enterprise solution like this deployed successfully,” says Pinellas County CIO Marty Rose. “You need that support from the top.”