By the end of 2016 there were about 3.7 billion internet users on the planet. All those people collectively generated approximately 1 zettabyte* of internet traffic in 2016 (that’s 21 zeros just in case you were wondering). And over 70% of that traffic was routed using WiFi**. WiFi has become such a critical aspect of our communications infrastructure and so synonymous with the internet that when WiFi goes down at home or at work, we inadvertently exclaim “The Internet is down!”
The advantages of WiFi are known to all and sundry – the numbers above alone make that point. It’s prominence in buildings is such that it is increasingly treated like a utility – just like water, gas and electricity, you’ve just gotta have WiFi! More recently, though, I got the shock of my life when I walked into a federal government building and found that they had no WiFi – not even for their employees! That is bound to change given the government’s workplace 2.0 initiative, which calls for a more modern, wireless workspace.
Given this heavy reliance on WiFi, however, WiFi networks continue to be designed poorly in most spaces and/or the underlying infrastructure for it is terribly outdated. A lot of this bad planning has to do with companies leaving the design of their WiFi network without the required RF (Radio Frequency) checks. Designing a WiFi network for an office space is vastly different to that of a warehouse, for example. The typical office environment requiring higher data capacity considerations for data-hungry users whereas a warehouse requires less data capacity as handhelds and scanners do not require much data to maintain inventory. However, unlike the typical office space, warehouses have high ceilings and lots of metal surfaces and machinery that can block/interfere with WiFi signals. Coverage becomes the key consideration in such environments.
Another common mistake is that a proper density use is not scoped right at the beginning of the design. Just because you have 100 employees does not mean you only have to account for 100 laptops (and some printers, scanners etc) that will connect to the office network. Each of those users will have at least 1 mobile phone that will be connecting to the office network as well. Some will also connect their tablets to the network. Additionally, some areas of the office, such as meeting rooms or cafeterias, will be more densely populated. Access Point (AP) density is impacted by such considerations.
One last gripe with poorly designed WiFi networks – the APs are just old and outdated. When was the last time you refreshed your WiFi infrastructure? If it’s been more than 4-5 years then chances are your internet experience isn’t all that good. A common knee-jerk reaction to slow internet is calling your ISP and just upgrading your internet connection. However, the bottleneck could actually be your archaic APs. Users today utilize WiFi to stream video and make telephone calls (Voice-over-WiFi). So not only do you need voice-grade APs in your environment today, but APs that can support speeds of over 1 Gbps. The latest iteration of APs (802.11ac) are designed to do just that!
WiFi is no longer a “good to have” technology, but the backbone of the communications network in your office today. I recently bought my wife a new laptop (I bought one after a gap of 3 years) and realized that most new laptops do not even have Ethernet (RJ45) ports anymore! Incidentally, the very next day I had a meeting with an old client of ours, who are a well-known and rapidly growing Canadian technology/e-commerce firm. In their new Ottawa office, they are going completely wireless – no desktop phones and no Ethernet wires hanging desk-side for laptops. The future comes with no wires attached!
Opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily of my employer.
Shahab Siddiqui’s Profile can be viewed here.