How to plan a great Wi-Fi experience for your business
In business Wi-Fi, planning for capacity, not just coverage, is critical
(Blog written by Martin Veitch former Editor of CIO, IT Week, and ZDNet News for ISG Technology)
Wireless networking is one of the great breakthrough technologies of our lifetime. The standardisation of the 802.11 protocol in 1997 together with Intel’s Centrino chipset six years later has helped to make Wi-Fi a common phenomenon all over the world, giving us the freedom to roam and stay connected.
Today, Wi-Fi is everywhere and people expect it to be a commodity available wherever they congregate: in shopping malls, offices, campuses, gyms, restaurants and bars. But to make it optimal and ensure that everyone gets access to that precious bandwidth while avoiding the World Wide Wait, you need to think about capacity planning.
But how do you make Wi-Fi available and fast in spaces where the numbers of people can change markedly, creating peaks and troughs in demand? And what happens if those people have potentially several wireless devices in concurrent use such as smartphones, laptops and cameras and maybe even wearables or peripherals?
Providing coverage to a space is easy: make sure you have sufficient signal strength to the required parameters, right? But creating a great customer Wi-Fi experience requires plenty of upfront thought, a robust design process, validation and ongoing testing. A practical guide will encompass a range of technical, usage analysis and human factors. Here are some of the key points relating to Wi-Fi capacity planning…
Keep talking. Capacity planning is a two-way conversation and clients need to share their experiences, telling the Wi-Fi solutions provider about their experiences and expectations. Not visiting a site in person is a bad shortcut to take when installing or re-fashioning a Wi-Fi setup and so is not talking to people who know the environment intimately. These people can help answer some of the most basic but essential questions. How many people will use a building at any given time? When are there spikes in demand? Is there a planned building design change or usage plan that will change matters? What applications and services are people using when they are online? Keeping communications channels open is a great way to start thinking about the capacity management challenge.
The second C: Coverage. Thinking about capacity trumps just covering the space with RF signals, but it’s still important to understand what does and doesn’t need to be covered. It’s not as simple as blanketing an entire premises with radio. The toilets of a restaurant might not need as much coverage but the public space, private dining rooms and bar area almost certainly will, for example. By studying people’s movements and needs it becomes clearer where access points need to be located and how to triangulate. Rather than covering every nook and cranny of a space it’s important to think about where people will be when they want go online.
The right tools for the job
Specialist capacity planning software will help to map out needs and quickly point us to tricky areas by creating a comprehensive survey with heat maps that show where connectivity might be strong or weak. If it’s a new-build or there is a building development plan then scrutiny of the architect’s design plan will be necessary. When combined with a thorough site survey , good planning software will help to identify coverage gaps, locate interference sources and spot misconfigured hardware. The communicating/survey/software combination will also determine the type of Access Point and antenna required for the particular environment be that high level, external or in an IP rated enclosure, not to mention designing the physical cabling infrastructure required to connect the AP’s into the LAN!
Managing expectations. What are the data throughput expectations on a user-by-user basis? In some environments there may be a need for fast throughput, for example where games, streaming media or high-resolution images might be accessed heavily. In a car dealership, the ability to view a rotated 3D image of a new car might help to seal a high-margin sale but it will also require a fast connection. Anticipating what wireless devices will be used for and the number of devices that will be used is preferential to simply estimating the number of people who will need access. In an office environment, a single user might have three or more connected devices all vying for bandwidth, perhaps alongside side connected security cameras, so simply counting bodies is a bad indicator.
Think outside the box. Walls, doors, windows, cubicles, hallways, and lifts all have a different effect on signal propagation. Magnetic interference from other equipment can restrict coverage. Is there a need for external coverage? At an event, delegates might gather outside buildings to make private calls. Wi-Fi planning shouldn’t end at the building perimeter.
Noisy neighbours. In wireless communications it’s a fact of life that the strongest signal wins. A neighbouring building with very powerful signal strength can drown out your wireless, so consider not just your building but also the people and building characteristics next door.
Think about the future. What works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow. Initial Wi-Fi traffic was mostly PC Card-based, then it became a feature of new laptops via the internal Centrino chipset. Later, smartphones and peripherals became Wi-Fi based and after that Wi-Fi voice calling became common. Today, in the age of the internet of things and smart buildings, more and more items will have connectivity built in, whether that’s through Wi-Fi or another wireless technology, again changing the dynamics of contention, interference, capacity and coverage.
Even to the keen student of the business, wireless planning is not an exact science. Factors change over time, equipment moves on and people change their habits. Inevitably, budgets will also have their say in what can and can’t be delivered. But anyone who starts from the assumption that they can just throw APs at the problem is delusional (and in fact some of the more common problems we see relate to environments where there are too many access points).
Capacity planning in Wi-Fi – as much else in life – should be approached with a “measure twice, cut once” methodology. Thinking ahead and doing your due diligence will give the best possible chance of keeping customers, partners and guests happy and productive in their corporate and leisure wireless activity.
Martin Veitch has been writing about business and technology for almost 30 years. He is the former Editor of CIO, IT Week, and ZDNet News and is the author of The Skyrocket Economy: How business speeded up, due to be published in 2019.