It’s no secret that with the current Covid-19 crisis many Americans are restricted to working from home. As a consequence, reliance on video sharing platforms such as Zoom, GoTo Meeting, Outlook Teams, Google Hangouts, etc. has become an essential for proper workflow. All signs are pointing that even when this crisis subsides, the reliance on working from home and video conferencing will continue to be the norm. Add to that the popularity of streaming services for both video and music content, and our dependency on a reliable Wi-Fi network has never been more apparent.
Interview with Nathan Holmes from Access Networks
So, taking that into consideration, what can you do to have a reliable and safe Wi-Fi network?
Here’s the lowdown on what you need to consider when setting up a Wi-Fi network:
1. Understanding the Frequency
The first concept to understand is what frequency, or better yet, frequencies a Wi-Fi network operates on and their pros and cons. The first to start with is the more common 2.4GHz frequency: the main benefit is that the 2.4GHz frequency has longer wavelength. That means that you can get reception further from the transmitter. In addition, it’s more prevalent and therefore almost all wireless products contain a 2.4GHz card. The latter feature is also the 2.4GHz frequency’s detriment; since the bandwidth is rather busy, resulting in what we call ‘noise’. Hence, this noise often causes latency in wireless communications.
In contrast, the 5GHz frequency has a shorter wavelength, meaning that a wireless device must be closer to the transmitter in order to have a proper reception. As a result, fewer wireless devices contain the 5GHz card. That may seem as a negative, though this is the 5GHz frequency’s advantage; if set right, this frequency is much cleaner and therefore communications can be steadier and faster. The rule of thumb is that for proper communications the 5GHz transmitters must be set up within 20’-25’ radius of each other.
2. Which Network Extenders get the Best Reception
We determined that a 5GHz bandwidth is more reliable than 2.4 GHz, but unless you have a small one-bedroom, one transmitter is not going to be enough for full coverage of your residence. It means that multiple transmitters or a network is needed. So, what are your options? The way to resolve this is by setting up multiple transmitters called ‘Access Points’ that communicate with one another. There are several options and topologies to deploy Access Points and we’ll try to explain them without getting too technical.
The Range Extender
This solution was very popular a few years back; you plug a device that extends your network to an outlet, set it up on the same network as your main wireless network and now you have an extender in a different part of your residence. The main issue with this system is that the extender appears as a sub-network, i.e. if your network’s name (SSID) is mynetwork, the extender will appear as mynetwork.EXT. Every time you move from one area to another, you must manually connect to the nearest extender. In addition, each extender you add cuts your bandwidth by half hence the amount of traffic that these extenders can handle is very limited and not suitable for video streaming. This option is extremely easy to setup, yet cumbersome and limited to use.
Mesh networks have become extremely popular in recent years. Google Wi-Fi and eero are two prime examples of mesh networks. In a mesh network, one access point is designated as the ‘main’ access point and is connected to the main router. The rest of the access points are plugged into a regular outlet and the setup is done through a mobile app. As long as all the access points are spread within the proper distance of one another, you’ll have a reliable network. This sounds so easy and reliable, there must be a catch, right? Well, there is; in a mesh network, when a wireless device (we call this a Client) tries to communicate with the network, all the access points need to communicate to decide which one is best suited to handle the request. This form of communication creates a latency and slows down the download and upload speeds of large files such as music and video streaming content. Therefore, mesh networks are decent and affordable DIY solutions, though they’re not the most efficient solution out there.
In-Line Wireless Access Points (WAP)
The last solution is what most pros resort to; in-line wireless access points (WAPs). With the in-line solution, the access points are deployed within 20’-25’ of one another and each area of the residence must be within 20’-25’ of an access point. That means it can also be above or below an access point, as long as every corner of the house, including outdoor areas (using outdoor grade access points) that you wish to be covered are within that range. This sounds great, but of course there’s a catch here too: as you move from one area to another, your wireless device, a mobile phone for example, stays attached to the last access point it was communicating with as long as there’s a signal, even if that signal is weak. For that reason, a controller that manages how the access points communicate with the wireless clients (wireless devices) is essential. How well the network preforms is owed partially to how well the controller manages the ‘hand-off’ from one access point to another. When all the parameters are taken into consideration this type of network will be the most reliable and efficient, whether for a residence or a large commercial space.
3. How to Maximize Network Speeds
Many of our clients are focused on the download and upload speeds, also known as throughput speeds. Most residential ISP’s (Internet Service Provider) offer top speeds anywhere from 400mbs (Megabit per Second) to 1Gbs (Gigabit per Second). However, if you try measuring the throughput on a network speed testing app as you walk through your residence, you’ll discover that your throughput is actually around 30% of what you pay, i.e. if your ISP service is 1Gbs, the measured throughput on your wireless device will be around 300mbs. That usually enrages clients as they think something is wrong with their wireless network. There are many reasons for this drop, and without getting too technical, it’ll suffice to say that this drop is normal and has to do with the way wireless devices communicate with the access points.
Since you wouldn’t feel a noticeable difference between 200mbs and 100mbs download speeds, instead of worrying about the throughput speeds, there are other aspects that influence your network reliability and speed: Traditionally access points were only able to ‘speak’ to one client (device) at a time. Although that communication is extremely fast, when you consider the multitude of devices communicating with a given access point at once, that can really slow a network down. Newer more advanced access points can speak to up to four clients at a time, hence increasing network efficiency exponentially. This feature is far more important than the measured download speeds, as long as those are over 100mbs.
Another aspect that influences your network speeds and reliability is how noisy or congested the network is. This brings us back to deciding on which frequency to use, 2.4GHz or 5GHz. As stated, the 5GHz bandwidth is much less congested, hence ‘cleaner’ and more reliable, thus should be the frequency of choice.
4. Considering Cybersecurity
Considering our reliance on the home network, especially working from home and using video conferencing, in addition to the proliferation of IoT (Internet of Things) connected devices such as lighting, appliances, security cameras and many more, the need for cyber security has never been greater. For that reason, considering a system that can provide intrusion prevention is of utmost importance. For the highest security and peace of mind, such prevention should include a good firewall option as well as active monitoring for intrusion. Naturally such options add to the initial cost of your network deployment. However, consider the potential financial consequences, not to mention your personal privacy, should your network be compromised.
With today’s lifestyle, our reliance on connected devices and streaming services, and now the need to work from home while video conferencing in order to stay connected with peers and clients alike, our reliance on the Wi-Fi network in our homes has never been greater. Having a properly deployed Wi-Fi network can make the difference between having a successful meeting or a dreadful one, between a pleasurable movie night or a horror movie. In addition, making sure that our wireless world is as secure, if not more, than our physical world cannot be overstated. A properly deployed and secured network is one that is not noticed but can make all the difference to how everything else works and flows. We consider this peace of mind to be part of Wellness by Design.