The Wi-fi’s not working? Or is it Facebook?

The other days outage of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram highlighted to me the complexity of internet services, and how they rely on various technologies, hardware, software, and companies to make things work.  This is the reality, yet the perception is that it is simply “Facebook” or “WhatsApp” a single simple service.

The same is true in schools in particular in relation to Wi-Fi.   How many times have I heard about issues with Wi-Fi?    I would suggest, too many, yet “the Wi-Fi isnt working” implies simplicity where it doesn’t exist.  The need to “fix” the Wi-Fi suggests a single point of failure, a single issue or technology to look at, where in reality the service relies on a number of different technologies and different companies to make work.

Some possible issues

Starting with the user device might be a useful place to start.   This can impact on Wi-Fi.   Recently my team came across a device where the DNS (Domain Name System) server was set to that of Google on the device rather than getting the DNS from the schools’ network.  For safeguarding reasons, we want to see the DNS requests so prevent the use of DNS servers other than our own so this student instantly had issues accessing internet services due to this.  I suspect they may have changed the DNS server for the purposes of bypassing home filtering such as that provided by the likes of Sky broadband.    Next there are students who may be using VPNs to bypass filtering.   Again, depending on the VPN used, this might impact their internet connection or the speed of their internet connection.    Updates which havent been installed on devices may also have an impact or possibly updates to the apps on device rather than the device itself.        

Moving beyond the device, the Wireless Access points may cause issues in terms of signal strength or in terms of their capacity to handle requests for different connected devices at the same time.   I will admit they also may occasionally fall over of their own accord.   It may also be that a “noisy” device is saturating the APs with requests leading to an impact on the service.   Or the issue could be to do with network switching or even the internet bandwidth available to serve all users.    Again a noisy device on the network could be impacting overall network performance.   Your DNS servers or DHCP servers, which provide devices the IP address they require, could also be at fault if they are not operating as they should.   And this is just scratching the surface of the potential causal or contributory factors.

And it doesn’t stop there; The issue might not even be within the school and could relate to issues with the service or site the students are trying to access.   It may be a reputable service which is simply having issues at a given moment in time, a bit like the recent Facebook issue, or it could be a less reputable site which simply isn’t trustworthy or reliable.  It could be that the site uses authentication from a third party, such as Facebook, and this is what is causing the issue, or that the site uses an Infrastructure as a Service (IAAS) vendor and it is they who are having problems.    It could even be a largescale internet routing issue.


This all makes me thing of the Arthur C. Clarke quote regarding advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.   The challenge is Facebook and internet services in general appear to be simple, in we can all easily use them.   There is no magic there, and as such there can be no magic in their inner workings.    Or at least that is the user perception.  This however is untrue.    There is magic.    There is the magic of so many different technologies, hardware, software and companies working together in unison to deliver the services we come to expect, or at least doing so most of the time.    That is until something goes wrong somewhere in the chain leading to that familiar cry:   “The Wi-fis not working!”


Author: garyhenderson2014

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. This has led him to present at a number of educational conferences in the UK and Middle East.

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