Residential Wi-Fi Challenges
By Topher Sutton, CCIO
It’s rare that a month or two goes by without at least one prospective client reaching out to us for assistance with residential Wi-Fi issues. As a business-to-business provider, our firm does not support clients that are strictly residential, however because a large contingent of our clients are in the business management profession, exceptions are often made for esteemed executives and their clients - our “extended family” so to speak.
Because residential Wi-Fi implementations are often fraught with issues, we felt it appropriate to provide candid insights into the subject. In this article, we’ll use a fictional play-by-play to illustrate some of the more common issues, and ways to resolve them.
The typical call often sounds something like this:
“We’re having wireless problems in our home. We have had four different providers out to try and fix it, we’ve spent a small fortune, yet it still doesn’t work.”
When an engineer arrives to inspect the network, he or she invariably finds a large residence employing multiple wireless access points. Occasionally, the access points are suitable, commercial grade equipment, but more often than not, the equipment deployed is consumer-grade. It also common to find that the equipment is not hard-wired into the customer’s network switch, but rather configured to utilize what is known as “Mesh” technology.
When this is the case, the solution to the problem is rarely what the homeowner was hoping to hear.
Although consumer Wi-Fi solutions are intended for residential use, they’re rarely optimal for large residences or homes with unique interior construction elements. While wireless mesh can be a great solution in some environments, it is inherently less reliable than hard-wired solutions. And when multiple access points require signal to be relayed wirelessly for more than one “hop”, performance degradation can be noticeable.
Common Pain Points
Often ignored, the impact of structural elements can be significant. Drywall and wall stud composition (and age) can materially affect signal penetration. Homes with wire and stucco exteriors are often extremely difficult to penetrate. Plaster wall treatments, magnetic paint, marble tiles, glass, mirrors, and ledgestone can be similarly problematic.
Another important variable that must be considered is the potential for signal interference. In densely populated areas where wireless networks abound, use of the same channel as another network or broadcasting device within close range can cause difficulties. Because Internet tends to be intermittent, problems may seem to appear and disappear inexplicably. Fortunately, with the proper tools, such problems can usually be pinpointed.
The Good News
The good news is there is (almost) always a solution to Wi-Fi difficulties. Like any technology, understanding how Wi-Fi works, investing in suitable survey equipment, and employing best practices will almost always result in a favorable experience.
The Bad News
The bad (or optimistically speaking, the “not-so-good”) news is that quality Wi-Fi equipment can be extremely costly. Eight access points at a cost of over $1,000 each can be difficult to swallow after being accustomed to seeing $60 consumer access points in big box stores everywhere. Further adding to the cost, best practices often call for hard-wiring cables to each access point in lieu of relying on wireless mesh technology. Installing cabling in a residential setting can be extremely costly, not to mention the cost of repairs to walls and ceilings which must often be opened for proper installation and concealment.
As we discussed earlier, reliable Wi-Fi is almost always attainable. The best path to a favorable outcome simply involves following best practices. Under optimal circumstances, a best practice Wi-Fi deployment involves the following steps:
1. Obtain Floor Plans
The homeowner or architect provides the Wi-Fi installation professional with electronic copies of the location floor plans and elevations. CAD files are preferred. .PDF files are also acceptable but increase the time and expense required to complete the initial survey.
2. Conduct Site Walk
The installation professional and homeowner or architect walk the proposed location with plans in hand, noting relevant structural features such as glass, mirrors, stone walls, magnetic paint, water, structural steel, ceiling fixtures, and other elements known to impede signal.
In some cases, (completed structures, for example) a portable signal testing apparatus may also be used to identify networks and other sources of signal interference in proximity. To the location.
3. Generate Site Survey Report and Analyze
Using the plans and information obtained during the site walk, the Wi-Fi installation professional uploads floor plans to special survey software and tags walls and sources of potential interference. The software processes this information and generates a detailed report that illustrates the optimal placement of access points, and projects signal strength and any signal “holes” on the floor plan. At that time, the Wi-Fi installation professional may virtually re-position access points or add additional access points to compensate for areas where signal strength is less than desirable, and to ensure any aesthetic requirements of the owner or architect are met.
The completed site survey illustrating placement of AP’s is presented to the homeowner or architect for his or her approval.
5. Cabling Installation
Upon approval, the Wi-Fi plan drawings, cable specifications, and access point positioning details are provided to a qualified low-voltage cabling contractor for installation.
Upon receipt of the wireless equipment, the Wi-Fi professional registers the equipment, activates any Cloud-based controller service and/or maintenance agreements as applicable, and pre-configures the Wi-Fi network in a laboratory setting.
7. Physical Installation
As the low-voltage contractor nears completion, the pre-configured equipment and mounting hardware are given to the contractor for physical installation of access points.
8. Activation and Optimization/Channel Tuning
With the equipment in place, the Wi-Fi installation professional activates the system and walks the location, testing signal strength and optimizing equipment to avoid channel interference and overlap. Security settings are double-checked, and the installer and end users test the new network(s) to ensure satisfaction.
While the foregoing steps are a vast departure from the less formal methods often employed by IT generalists, they are tried and proven. When optimal performance is a must, there is no substitute for best practices.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: My Wi-Fi has already been installed and I don’t want to destroy my walls running wires. Is there anything that can be done?
A: In the beginning of this article, our fictional caller states that four providers had already attempted to remediate their Wi-Fi problems with no success. We never want to be the fifth. Depending on your installation, sometimes settings can be checked for proper configuration, and channel configuration settings can often be optimized. Unfortunately, there is still no substitute for following the best practices outlined above, and as such, any optimization and tuning efforts would be made on strictly best-efforts basis, with no guarantee of success.
Q: I already have a top of the line enterprise Wi-Fi solution that was professionally installed in exactly the same manner you described. Unfortunately, I am still unable to obtain speed test results that approximate the speed of my very fast fiber connection. What could be the problem?
A: There can be several reasons for this.
- Assuming everything has been installed and configured correctly, it is important to recognize that Wi-Fi communication is bi-directional.
This means, for example, that if you have a synchronous Internet connection providing speeds of 1Gbps up and 1Gbps down, and Wi-Fi gear rated for throughput of 1Gbps, you shouldn’t expect 1Gbps upload or download speeds because Wi-Fi does not send and receive concurrently. This is rarely a problem for residential users, but worth noting for those that periodically test their Internet speed.
- Slow devices on a wireless network can adversely affect the communication speed of faster devices.
People often overlook or are unaware of the fact that the performance of an otherwise fast Wi-Fi network can be degraded by older devices with slow communication speeds. For example, let’s assume a homeowner has a wireless access point capable of communicating at both 2.4Ghz and the faster 5Ghz frequency. A user connecting to the network with a device capable of the faster 5Ghz frequency will be slowed to 2.4Ghz if someone with a 2.4Ghz device connects. The access point must reduce its speed to match the lowest common denominator.
- Residential Internet service in general can be inconsistent.
It is not uncommon for Internet performance issues to be mis-diagnosed as Wi-Fi problems. When chronic speed issues are being experienced, it is important to isolate the actual source of the problem. This is usually accomplished by plugging a laptop directly into the modem and performing a speed test. If performance is as it should be, the technician works backwards, isolating the firewall, and then testing the Wi-Fi with no other devices attached. Like anything, enterprise class Wi-Fi solutions can and do experience problems, and occasionally an access point will malfunction and need to be replaced, however other explanations are more often the case.
Q: My friend uses a simple consumer Wi-Fi appliance and has little to no problems. Why won’t that work for me?
A: If you’re able and willing to use a single appliance (or possibly even two or three) and mesh works reliably for you, then there’s no reason not to. Ultimately the goal is finding a secure and robust solution that works.
If you’re inclined to try a consumer solution, the most important thing is that you proceed with the right mindset and expectations. It is difficult to quantify the cost of frustration from poor Internet performance in terms of dollars. Some homeowners roll the dice and meet with success. Others suffer the proverbial “death of a thousand cuts” and end up replacing consumer solutions, spending more in the long term.
Perhaps the most important advice that can be imparted is to ask the right questions of your IT provider, listen carefully to their advice, and avoid steering them. Remember that as a service provider, he or she wants to please you. If you insist firmly on particular product lines, budgets, or deployment restrictions, they may acquiesce, and you may find yourself paying for your Wi-Fi installation twice.
Topher Sutton is a member of the Consulting CIO team at Sandbox Technologies.