When Coverage Isn’t Everything: Ditching Your Outdated Wi-Fi Designs
When your Wi-Fi loses steam and your connection stalls, what is the one thing you look for first? The Wi-Fi icon, of course! We instantly check how many “bars” we have and then wonder why our connection is crawling at a snail’s pace, even when all five (or in some cases, four) bars are lit up in bright green.
The reality is that Wi-Fi signal strength isn’t always the best gauge of network performance. Even network administrators struggle with this contradiction. Almost all administrators use signal strength or “heat maps” to make their initial design for new Wi-Fi installs, and there’s no denying that this is a necessary first step, But building a Wi-Fi network with just signal strength as the primary metric is highly inadequate in today’s mobile-centric world.
Sure, the conventional “coverage-oriented” approach is a great design principle for low-density wireless environments. But as the concentration of Wi-Fi devices increases, signal strength soon means next to nothing. This creates an obstacle to quality service when we craft our networks using outmoded concepts of what device density actually looks like. The phrase “high density” commonly invokes visuals of 90,000 rabid fans screaming at a pop concert, or noisy expo centers packed with conference guests. Meanwhile, we tend to assume that smaller facilities like classrooms and offices fall under the category of “low density” spaces by default.
Yet this conventional wisdom is starting to fray, due to evolving patterns of device usage like the explosion of mobile apps and the spread of BYOD. Today’s workplaces, schools and other Wi-Fi reliant organizations now find themselves overrun with laptops, tablets, smartphones, wireless printers, smart watches and even more Wi-Fi enabled devices – all of them attempting to connect to the local network. That “low density” 50-person office that used to support exactly 50 devices is now tasked to support nearly 3-4 times that number, simply because today’s employees use far more wireless machines.
Users don’t need five green bars – they need more capacity and performance. Unfortunately, this is another frequent source of confusion. IT professionals often make the mistake of assuming that expanding Wi-Fi capacity is as simple as adding more access points (APs). In fact, providing more capacity actually means utilizing more radios, not more APs. It’s a crucial but subtle distinction, one that’s often lost amongst many IT experts.
Here’s why it matters: in a typical dual radio AP, one radio operates on the legacy 2.4GHz spectrum and another radio in the more recent 5GHz band. As a result, when you introduce more conventional APs to a network, 50% of whatever capacity you just added is usually in the form of legacy 2.4GHz. The problem here is that very few modern devices even use 2.4GHz any more, since virtually all contemporary smartphones, tablets and laptops now enjoy 5GHz capability. As a result, you’ve just expended precious time and money on excessive Wi-Fi capacity that will likely go unused! One way to avoid this scenario is by future-proofing your network with Xirrus software-programmable radios. These radios can be configured to either 2.4GHz or 5GHz depending on the mix of devices in use, allowing you to fully utilize your entire Wi-Fi infrastructure at all times.
If we had pound for every time we were asked, “How much area does your AP cover?” I’d be ready to retire! I understand the intent behind the question, but it’s a reflexive, outmoded approach that is poorly suited to current Wi-Fi needs. Any answer I provide will have no relevance to the person’s unique wireless environment, especially in terms of typical device density. As Wi-Fi use continues to evolve at a rapid clip, make sure you aren’t left behind with this old-school “coverage-based” thinking. Instead, adapt your Wi-Fi strategy to focus on capacity and performance, and you’ll truly deliver the power of connectivity to your users.
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