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Stretch Your Wings and Wi-Fi

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Wi-Fi technology has grown in leaps and bounds over the last 10 years providing businesses and individuals with greater flexibility on how they access their data. However, some aspects of Wi-Fi are still stuck in the quagmire of the old networks of yester decade. Understanding the limitations of wireless radio connectivity can greatly aid in the understanding and adoption of Wi-Fi as a reliable means of connecting users to their precious data.

The single biggest weakness of Wi-Fi is that it relies on a shared radio signal, meaning no matter what your Wi-Fi name or passphrase is, if multiple Wi-Fi devices and access points are working on the same radio channel, they are all competing for talk time, which equals congestion and poor performance. And for those who can remember back to networking in the 90s this is just like the old shared Ethernet networks running on coaxial cables and BNC connectors… “Whaat??” you say…trust me that was the stuff of network hell back 20 years ago. When using a shared medium, networks will experience rapidly degrading performance as traffic demands increase. There is no easy fix for this but understanding the problem will guide you to a Wi-Fi solution that will give you maximum performance.

“Just pump up the signal strength” you hear people say when your Wi-Fi sucks. But all that does is make the problem worse, as now you overlap more Wi-Fi devices creating a greater radio collision zone. So, increasing signal strength is not a cure all, but rather reducing Wi-Fi overlap is the key step in improving network performance. Understanding the radio channels in use in your office area allows you to navigate to lessor used channels which will improve wireless device performance.

Like any technology Wi-Fi access points have improved over time… hmm much like wine, well kinda! Keeping your access point hardware updated (less than 5 years old) will greatly boost your chances of having a robust Wi-Fi network. That old device from 10 years ago is just not gonna cut it any more… so cut it loose! Modern access points employ a variety of features to ensure they beat the radio channel trap.

So, where do you go from here?  I suggest using some analytic tools to detect what radio channels are in use around your office space in both the 2.4GHz and 5Ghz spectrum – and for this you will need to use a newer laptop or mobile device (within the last three years) to ensure it has both radios available. Amped Wireless’ Wi-Fi Analytic Tool is a great free download that you can use to scan your wireless footprint and detect what radio channels and access points are competing for those precious few radio channels. Once installed you will see a breakdown of the 2.4Ghz and the 5Ghz spectrum and which devices are running on which channels in these spectrums.

2.4Ghz is a widely-used radio frequency for Wi-Fi networks running the 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n specifications but as such is very saturated, making the 5Ghz channels for the 802.11a, 802.11n and 802.11ac specifications more desirable. Aha but… always a ‘but’ 2.4Ghz has better range than 5Ghz so once again it’s not a clear-cut issue of just switching to 5Ghz. Using an access point that uses both radios simultaneously and allows for bandwidth steering – a feature that pushes devices to either 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz depending on their proximity to the access point – is a great feature for leveraging the strengths of both radio spectrums.

Once you have detected your channels you can see how many access points are running on each channel. You will notice that, for the 2.4 Ghz range, chiefly 1, 6 or 11 are used as these are considered non-overlapping channels. Don’t just switch to using a channel outside of these as the other channels will cause more overlap and end up degrading performance. Throwing more access points at the problem does not guarantee success either, as you can end up just polluting your radio space further.  Rather careful placement of the access points throughout your space will make a huge difference.

As a device user is Wi-Fi simple to connect to?… Yeah you bet. But deploying a well performing Wi-Fi network is no simple task and requires good planning, the right technology and correct implementation to get you to Wi-Fi bliss.

Need help? Contact us for a Wi-Fi assessment of your office space.  We’ll conduct a wireless heatmap survey that will map out the best locations in your office to install access points and get you that killer Wi-Fi network you’ve been dreaming of.

Erik Edge