Schools can be hesitant to use Wi-Fi, because they need to control the Internet access their children get - but for Heathland Comprehensive School in West London, blanket coverage was the best way to ease the pressure on the school's computer rooms.

In universities, adult pupils can be expected to provide their own laptops, and take care of themselves online, so it makes sense to cover the site with Wi-Fi. Secondary schools and below are less likely to go for full coverage, as their pupils require more supervision and can't be expected to provide hardware. School-level IT has generally been provided in special purpose computer rooms - but modern teaching increasingly requires Internet access, and this may have to change.

"Learning isn't centred completely on computers," says Adam Urch, network manager at Heathland, "but our school is very tight on rooms, with around 95 percent of the rooms in use." The school, in Hounslow, West London, has 1850 pupils aged 11 to 18, 150 teachers and 200 support staff.

In that situation, there is always someone in the computer room, and it's not possible to use it for a lesson which only needs access for ten minutes. In 2006, it was obvious that teachers and pupils need to be able to access the Internet from anywhere.

Is wireless best?

Wireless might seem to be the obvious answer, but Urch took some persuading. He was happy with the general performance of wireless, provided by some standalone Linksys Wi-Fi access points the school had bought on the high street, but these could only support about a dozen users at a time, and were awkward to use and unlikely to scale to larger coverage.

Also, as well as supporting the current building, any wireless LAN would have to expand easily into new buildings that the school has planned.

Urch looked at a solution from Proxim that would link up the existing Linksys access points, along with more, similar "fat" APs, but he didn't want to have to keep tweaking single APs: "I'm a network manager, and I'm in favour of central control," he says.

The choice with centralised controllers was between an Aruba centralised Wi-Fi switch, and a more expensive solution based on Meru's single-channel wireless LAN.

Heathland went for the more expensive option, to have a system that will expand to meet future demands, and because the single-channel architecture allows new access points to be added without any survey work.

Coverage issues

Urch also wanted to have good wireless coverage, and minimise any RF planning requirements in the current building and any new ones: "We've got a big old 1970s building, with thick concrete walls and lots of reflective surfaces." It also has to cope with peaks of demand: "Between 9.00 and 9.15, there might be 150 laptops turned on and wanting access."

Having lots of students adds to the RF problem, and his major piece of advice for anyone planning a similar project is to do the Wi-Fi site survey on a normal school day, when the students and staff are there to soak up the radio signals.

Urch was less conscious of price than other schools might be, as the system is supported by a grant, because of Heathland's status as a Science College. The same source of funding provides for laptops that the children can use. "We can't provide every student with a laptop," says Urch, but the laptops are stored in locked boxes in sites such as the sixth from common room, where they can be signed out as required.

Planned extensions

The school now has 39 AP201 Meru access points, along with an MC3050 controller, giving 90 percent coverage in the main three-story building. It also covers all the outside buildings and a new extension. "We will have 100 percent coverage, and Wi-Fi to the perimeter of the site," says Urch. He is planning to allow Wi-Fi use from the sports field and the school's nature reserve.

Any classroom can become a computer lab, and it should never take more than five minutes to get a student logged on.

Roaming and handover isn't a major factor yet. Although the network does allow people logged on to walk around the school without losing signal, that's not often a factor with laptop use. However, the school is looking at using VoIP on dual-mode handsets: "We're looking at ShoreTel and SIMS [a school information system from integrator Capita, which includes voice]," says Urch.

Overall, he's happy with the decision to unwire the school, and looking forward to the next steps.