How to buy Wi-Fi
Written by: James Atkinson | Published:

Delivering a successful Wi-Fi network means getting the basics right in terms of design, management and features and then enhancing performance through value-added applications, as James Atkinson reports

Wi-Fi seems to be almost everywhere these days and demand continues to increase, as David Goff, head of enterprise networks at Cisco UK&I, observes. “There’s a huge array of personal devices, IoT and other mission-critical applications that organisations of all kinds rely on that are dependent on wireless technologies.

“More than 600 million mobile devices and connections were added in 2017, according to the latest Cisco Visual Networking Index. And it keeps on growing – the volume of mobile data traffic is expected to grow up to four times in the next four years,” says Goff.

That capacity issue is clearly something Wi-Fi providers need to watch out for, but if they want to provide a good-quality experience they still need to address the basics, starting with why they are investing in Wi-Fi in the first place.

“Is it a nice-to-have or is it fundamental to the core purpose of the business or organisation?” asks Steve Johnson, regional director, Northern Europe at Ruckus Wireless. “Once you have made a decision about who, why and what you are connecting, then the decision-making becomes a lot easier.”

Simon Wilson, CTO, UK & Ireland at HPE Aruba, argues that knowing your demographic and understanding what they need Wi-Fi for helps drive the infrastructure choices and security solutions. “Take retail: a department store demographic is different to a coffee shop, which people treat as a virtual office.”

Another key question is whether or not the network is for public Wi-Fi. “If you do public Wi-Fi badly you may as well not do it at all, as it can leave the customer frustrated if it is too slow or you ask too many personal questions for login,” says Wilson. “I know colleagues who have checked out of a hotel because the Wi-Fi was bad.”

Johnson adds that another vital consideration is to plan for future requirements – not just for Wi-Fi, but the whole connectivity and networking strategy. This means thinking not just in terms of future capacity, but also the kinds of value-added applications they might want to add.

RF design
There are few organisations for whom Wi-Fi is not important these days, so it is advisable not to take any shortcuts, warns Johnson. “Most problems with Wi-Fi are about the deployment rather than the equipment, so do not shirk on RF surveys. The RF design is fundamental to the success of the investment.”

Goff concurs, saying: “With any procurement of a Wi-Fi network it’s best to start with an active wireless survey to provide a realistic picture of the expected wireless footprint and the possible interference that might be at play. Once the locations of access points (APs) have been determined, considerations must turn to control.

“Overlapping signals from separate APs can cause potential interference and signal problems. However, using the right control plan can allow them to take advantage of non-overlapping channels, thereby avoiding frequency clashes.”

Wilson says failing to assess the potential interference is a not uncommon mistake. “People do not necessarily look at who else is using Wi-Fi in the same space. There is a finite number of channels you can use, so be mindful of who else is deploying Wi-Fi in your area.”

Another mistake is to underestimate other aspects that help to ensure a good experience on Wi-Fi. “Your network may have a strong signal, but if you provide a poor captive portal, people will say the Wi-Fi is bad. Underestimating the number of people using the network is another error,” says Wilson.

“You may find you do not have enough IP addresses or the servers are under-powered for the requests people are wanting to make and there is not enough bandwidth. I think customers often say Wi-Fi is just a guest service, so we don’t need so much bandwidth, but if it is slow it will annoy customers.”

Backend infrastructure
Goff adds: “But it’s not just the wireless hardware itself that makes a difference. Without the right physical network connection in place to start things, wireless performance will still remain slow and frustrating to use. Therefore, any business looking to install or upgrade their Wi-Fi network must consider the underlying connection they’ll be using to connect all of their other network devices.”

It’s no good investing in high-throughput APs if traffic gets stuck in a cabling or switch bottleneck. “We now provide multi-gigabit technology in the AP, so organisations must look to future-protect their Ethernet switching capacity,” agrees Johnson.

“Most existing cabling systems are designed for 1Gigabit Ethernet, which is okay for now as we are only just seeing Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) devices coming on to the market, so there is time to prepare,” says Wilson. “But in the next two to three years the majority of devices will transition to Wi-Fi 6, at which point your backend infrastructure will need to be ready to deliver greater throughputs to your APs.”

Generally, this means ripping out and replacing existing cabling infrastructure. There are ways around this, such as Aruba’s HPE Smart Rate solution – a multi-gigabit twisted-pair network interface, which allows organisations to get 2.5 to 10 times more bandwidth out of their existing CAT5e and CAT6 twisted pair cabling.

Finding the right reseller or system integrator partner is essential. Johnson recommends choosing a fully certified vendor. “It’s very easy to assume Wi-Fi is all the same, when that is patently not the case. The partner should advise you of the best vendor for your environment. Look at their case studies, as some vendors are strong in certain sectors.”

Tendering options
The choice of whether to trust a partner’s recommendation or go for an open tender is often dictated by the size of the customer’s in-house IT resource, according to Johnson. “If you want to choose, design, deploy and manage the network yourself, that is okay, but you should have a robust IT department and that can be a big overhead.”

Leaner IT departments and more outsourcing of ICT have led resellers to move away from capex-based selling of Wi-Fi components to owning and operating network operations centres with private cloud for managed services, says Johnson.

Both Wilson and Johnson are in favour of proof-of-concept trials. “We like to show we can do what we claim we can do,” says Johnson. “It is also important for customers to see if there are any questions we can answer at that point.”

The choice of whether to manage the network yourself or opt for an outsourced solution in the cloud will again depend on in-house IT resource and the nature of the organisation. Most vendors will offer both options with variations in between.

Wilson believes customers are more accepting of cloud for their management platform these days. “Some are happy to do a full SaaS, while others still won’t go near cloud. But if it is a multi-office deployment, it makes sense to put the management in the cloud.”

Some customers may invest in Wi-Fi for pure connectivity, but most will be looking to enhance the service with value-added applications to provide a financial return, improve productivity or deliver better customer service.

Some vendors integrate Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Zigbee radios into their APs to support location-based services and IoT. “There is no need to duplicate networks or acquire new technology skillsets. Instead you have a single, multi-use environment network. It also means you can deploy IoT more quickly and effectively,” says Johnson.

As Wilson points out, IoT devices only send tiny amounts of data, but there will be lots of them in the future and they need managing. “Each IoT device needs an IP address and security measures in place, but in terms of pure throughput there is not a lot of data.”

BLE beacons combined with Wi-Fi have been used in retail for some years now to measure customer dwell times, footfall, traffic-flows and so on. “It gives retailers a much better idea of what is attracting shoppers and they can work out how that translates into actual sales,” says Johnson.

But now BLE beacons are being adopted more widely with more organisations developing their own apps, especially in areas where the facilities are not familiar to people, such as telling them where to find a coffee shop in a railway station. Automatic hotel check-in and door-locking systems are other examples.

Wi-Fi analytics are also being used in a wider variety of use-cases. “University students can check ahead to see if there are free seats in the library. Security departments use analytics to see if there are still people in the building. Facilities managers can use them to check the footfall in toilets. If it is particularly high, that probably indicates they need to be cleaned more often. The point is you no longer have to send someone along every hour to check,” says Wilson.

Wi-Fi 6
Any customer looking to invest in Wi-Fi will be considering whether to make the leap to the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, which promises a number of benefits, as Cisco’s Goff explains: “The Wi-Fi 6 standard has made major steps forward in areas such as connectivity, throughput and availability. It delivers far greater capacity, making it more effective in higher-density settings such as large lecture halls and stadiums.

“There are also vast improvements in latency, making near real-time use-cases more realistic. Wi-Fi signal will only extend so far, and mobile networks have their limitations.” Goff points to the Cisco-led OpenRoaming initiative, which will let mobile users automatically and seamlessly roam across Wi-Fi and cellular networks, including Wi-Fi 6 and 5G.

Wi-Fi 6 has additional benefits such as a higher level of security in WPA 3 and greater capabilities around energy saving, as you can turn the AP’s power down. “If you have a major network of 1,000 APs on a campus and you drop the power consumption from 15W down to 3W, that is a big power saving,” says Wilson.

One final consideration any customer should think about is what kind of aftercare service they want. Most leading vendors now offer zero-touch provisioning, making it easy for customers to keep spare APs and replace units themselves without bothering to sign up to a maintenance contract. Others may want outsourced 24-hour monitoring of their network, so IT teams know if there is a problem before the users do.

With the right service regime, careful network design and installation and a clear roadmap for future requirements, Wi-Fi providers should be able to deliver an excellent experience to their users.

Should you invest in Wi-Fi 6 yet?
The major vendors have been shipping Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) products for some months now even though the Wi-Fi Alliance only recently (16 September) launched its certification programme for the standard. This is common practice with each new generation of Wi-Fi, but should customers be wary of investing in it now?

Aruba’s Wilson believes they should dive in. “It can cost as much to deploy an AP as it does to buy it. The price difference between 802.11ac Wave 2 and 802.11ax is not that much, so in terms of preparing for your future networking needs, it makes absolute sense to invest in 802.11ax today.”

What to consider: the dos & don’ts of Wi-Fi

  • Do think about all the technology surrounding the Wi-Fi that will contribute to the overall experience, such as splash pages and IP addressing.
  • Do an RF survey to detect potential issues and to see if there are other Wi-Fi services are around that might cause interference.
  • Do think about what the Wi-Fi investment can do for you. It can provide much more than just connectivity.
  • Do consider IoT use-cases.

  • Don’t have your portal ask too many questions if you want people to connect to your guest Wi-Fi network.
  • Don’t assume all Wi-Fi is the same.
  • Don’t put too many APs up. If you expect high densities of users, choose a Wi-Fi solution designed to meet that demand.
  • Don’t ignore backend switching and Ethernet cabling infrastructure when upgrading Wi-Fi.

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