You know how annoying it is when you arrive at a business that advertises WiFi for its customers or visitors, but when you try to connect, you can’t, despite a strong signal.
Or, perhaps even worse, you can connect, but the connection keeps failing. Just imagine what it’s like when you work in that same company and there’s nothing you can do to stay connected reliably to the network.
There are, of course, many reasons why you’re experiencing poor connection reliability, but the root of the problem usually boils down to two things, both of which are frequently present. They are poor selection of WiFi access points and poor network design.
Of the two, network design is usually the most difficult to fix if only because most people don’t have the background to understand microwave radio propagation within a building. And, yes, WiFi uses microwaves. In fact, WiFi operating at 2.4GHz operates in the same frequency range as the microwave oven that you used to heat your breakfast sandwich, just not with the same intensity.
Fortunately, the selection of the right WiFi access points (APs) will frequently do away with many of the network design problems you might face if only because the right hardware may be able to compensate. What’s even better is that the right selection of access points can also do away with the capacity, dropped connection and reliability problems you’re experiencing. What you need are business-class WiFi access points.
The problem comes with defining what constitutes business-class WiFi. The answer, I found after considerable study is WiFi that supports the needs of the business in terms of reliability, capacity and security. This means that your WiFi infrastructure needs to be able to handle the number of devices that you can anticipate will attempt to connect to the network in a worst-case situation.
The infrastructure needs to support speeds high enough for your employees or your customers to accomplish the work they want to do and to do it fast enough to meet their needs. And, of course it needs to be secure.
Saying all of this is a lot easier than doing it. “Being able to constantly manage and adapt the signal-to-interference and -noise ratio is one of the key to delivering a business-class WiFi service,” said David Callisch, vice president of corporate marketing at Ruckus Wireless, a company that makes business-class WiFi products. This means that the access points in the network become actively involved in seeking out ways to deliver the best possible signal to every client.
Complicating the problem of providing the best signal to every client is the fact that so many people are using mobile devices to connect to WiFi. The problem that often exists with these devices is twofold. One is that their radios transmit very weak signals and have relatively ineffective antennas. The other obvious problem is that these devices, because they are mobile, tend to move around a lot.
“One of the most important things is receiver performance,” said GT Hill, director of product and technical marketing at Ruckus. “WiFi clients are very weak transmitting devices,” so networks need to be able to hear better, he said.
Why Reliable Business-Class WiFi Connections Are Hard to Find
To do this, companies that design business-class WiFi products need to go far beyond the standard radios and antennas found in the basic $20 access point.
“The difference is in how you’re designing your electronics, shielding your components so you can hit that 30-decibel signal-to-noise ratio in a reasonable environment,” explained Dirk Gates, executive chairman and founder of Xirrus, a company that specializes in enterprise WiFi. “You’re going to have much better sensitivity and much better signal rejection.”
While both companies use commercially available WiFi chips, the differences between those access point and what you’d find available at a Best Buy or Walmart are significant. Both companies completely redesign the radios in their products, and they make use of advanced antenna design. In addition, the companies beef up the electronics that handle the signal processing in their access points.
“You need more memory in an enterprise-class product because you may have station counts that are an order of magnitude higher,” Gates explained. “We build nothing less than 2 cores,” he said, “but most are 4-core 64-bit with nothing less than a gig of RAM.”
When an access point includes a full load of enterprise features, such as policy management, a real-time firewall and tunneling capability, it requires some significant processing horsepower, Gates said.
There are additional considerations, including the fact that with business-class WiFi, you have to coordinate the activities of many access points within a building and allow mobile devices to roam from one to another seamlessly. If all you’re doing is buying a bunch of cheap consumer WiFi devices, that won’t work. “On the enterprise side, there’s a level of coordination and sharing of information that home devices don’t do,” Gates explained.
And then there’s the need to find ways to seek out the relatively weak WiFi signals that are in use in a company. This means designing radios that work well on all of the WiFi channels at both 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Hill of Rukus Wireless points out that this includes being able to adjust the antenna design to handle differences in polarization and the ability to focus the antenna on each specific WiFi source, even if it’s moving.
“WiFi technology is advancing to pick the best modulation rates for different clients as environmental conditions change as well as automatically choose the best channels that will yield the highest data rates,” Callisch said. “Stronger signals, over the best signal paths ensure fewer dropped packets or retransmissions, allowing more clients to use the network simultaneously. WiFi is no longer about coverage; it’s about reliable capacity on demand.”
So how do you know whether your company is choosing the right WiFi solution? First, you need to ask questions about how the company’s WiFi access points handle large client counts and how they handle interference. Then you need to ask how this is all accomplished. If the vendor or consultant you’re talking to suggests simply buying a lot of APs, then it’s time to look elsewhere.
The one thing that’s true about business-class WiFi, besides the fact that it’s not cheap, is that with business-class WiFi, more is not better. Smarter is what’s better.