Wifi is now the number one method for connecting to a network. But for IT managers, it can also be the number one headache. Solving wifi problems eats up IT time and drains employees productivity. In this article, we look at why wifi works the way it does, what the most common wifi problems are, and how to troubleshoot wifi in your own network.
Troubleshooting wifi means understanding its history
The wifi standard we use – 802.11 – was developed in the 90s for barcode scanners in warehouses. And it was over-specced for that use case. Think of it like building a 4-lane motorway to handle traffic between two small villages.
But today, the number of devices connecting to a wifi network far exceeds what engineers could have envisioned a couple of years ago. For example, the wireless networks Cisco is working on as part of the Cisco Connected Stadium Wi-Fi Experience, are being sized to accommodate five devices per person in the stadium – in some cases that means around 400,000 connections.
And while the typical small business won't quite have 400,000 devices to contend with overall, its users can easily be connecting a work and a personal smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, and a watch to your network.
Wireless access points: the more the merrier
A common cause of slow wifi is the fact that small business networks don’t have enough access points to handle the number of devices.
In 2007, the average user had 0.25 wireless devices. Back then, most of us were still using a desktop computer – and smartphones were in their infancy. Today, the average user has more than five devices. Laptops, tablets, smartphones, wearables, games consoles, streaming media players, and e-readers are all competing for bandwidth. If your network was built ten years ago, there’s a good chance it’s overloaded with traffic.
Invest in smarter tools for wifi diagnosis
Does this sound familiar? You get a call from a frustrated manager whose wifi “isn’t working”. By the time you go over to see what the problem is, it’s mysteriously fixed itself. Until next week when the same thing happens again. And again. Diagnosing a problem you can’t replicate is as frustrating for you as the wifi failures are for your colleague.
There is software available, like DNA Analytics and Assurance, which lets you see how devices, users, and applications are behaving across your network – both in real time and in the past. This allows you to diagnose network faults with pinpoint accuracy and quickly fix them.
You save time and money, and your users get a better experience and are more productive.
Multiple small wifi cells improve connectivity
The further a device is from an access point, the poorer the connection strength and speed will be. The reasons for this are complex and have to do with modulation, but the basics are simple enough to understand. As a device moves further away, the access point uses courser methods to find that device in the physical space it broadcasts to. Those methods use up more bandwidth, meaning that other devices using that access point can't send their messages, and the network slows down.
For that reason, modern wifi network design favours small cells broadcasting at high frequency (5 GHz). Low frequency (2.4 GHz) travels further (think of the bass from a car passing you with its stereo at full volume) but is generally slower.
So if you’re using one access point to cover your whole office at 2.4 GHz, consider splitting it into two or more smaller, faster 5 GHz zones.
Your office layout could be the cause of wifi issues
Wifi signals are radio waves bouncing around a space and hitting or passing through objects. Modern offices are full of physical obstacles that prevent good wireless connectivity. Metal objects, for example, can reflect signals like a mirror, which also degrades them. If your users report wifi issues when they're near large metal filing cabinets or mirrors, you may want to move those items.
Wireless signals are in the same spectrum as visible light, only at a much lower frequency. And like light waves, wifi signals are refracted when they pass through water. In practice, this means packet loss and a lower connection quality. While aquariums look cool in offices, they are a nightmare for network engineers. Moving your access points can help, but you may need expert advice to avoid long periods of trial and error.
Walls, too, are especially hard for wifi signals to penetrate. The thicker and denser the wall, the greater its destructive effect – and high frequency 5 GHz signals suffer more; another reason to consider building smaller cells in walled-off areas of your site rather than covering the whole network with one access point.
Enterprise network performance at small-business (affordable) prices
As you can see, there are many ways to get wifi wrong. But setting up and managing wireless networks needn't be complicated or costly. We've developed Cisco Mobility Express specifically for small businesses. Small businesses can set up a wireless network in under ten minutes, manage it from one console, and scale to accommodate up to 100 access points.
Plus, we have a range of offers for small businesses, including:
Free Cisco Meraki wireless access points when you join our webinar on cloud based networking
Request a DNA Analytics and Assurance demo.