Your WiFi works. Should you replace it?

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Imagine having a wireless network for 10 years.  It was well designed when it was installed, and you don’t seem to get very many Wi-Fi issue tickets.  Is there a reason you should consider ripping out the system you know is dated but seems to serve you well?  I am going to go over the reasons why the correct answer may be yes.

Wi-Fi Design Standards Have Changed

wifi1Designs for Wi-Fi networks used to be based primarily on a coverage only model.  Using this model, if the area was receiving coverage at a -70dBm or better, then all the design criteria for that area was considered met.  Potential device connected data rates have climbed from 11Mbps to potentially 3.47Gbps over the years.  While this is excellent news, to take advantage of it, the devices need to be closer to the AP.

The density of clients has increased dramatically over the last few years with the average person having 2 devices on them at all times.  In the past most devices were wired, so the portion of clients using wireless was low.  This increase in wireless client density has put increasing pressure on the need for a low retry, low latency, and high data rate transmissions.

In the past, it was also commonly accepted for an AP to provide coverage to multiple floors of a building.  Most non-residential multistory buildings have floors constructed using a layer of steal covered in concrete.  Wi-Fi often penetrates this structure but is generally unable to maintain high data rates and low retry rates through this type of material.

Technology Changes

Access points (AP) used to be simple.  They generally just had one 2.4Ghz radio (B/G) and sometimes one 5Ghz radio (A).  While many AP’s on the market still have just these two radios, they are no longer just B/G or A radios.  They are now B/G/N, A/N/AC, or A/B/G/N/AC radios.

Access points also now contain chipsets to constantly “sniff” the air for rogue AP’s, wireless attacks, and spectrum feedback.  Cisco AP’s with CleanAir are even able to decode the spectrum feedback to identify the interference sources; microwaves, Bluetooth, DECT phones, and many others.

Many models of AP’s today come with Bluetooth radios.  These radios may be used for wayfinding, location-based application interactivity, and monitoring other Bluetooth activity.

While all these new features are fantastic to have, to function or function well most of them require more AP’s per square foot then the A/B/G AP’s of yore.

Wi-Fi clients have progressed dramatically.  They too can support the new features in AP’s of today, and they need it.  Applications are no longer text-based websites.  They now include large downloads, automatic updates, security software, VPN, live databases, screen sharing, and websites that have evolved to use Flash, video, audio, HD graphics, as well as live audio/video. 

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Are there Wi-Fi Issues on your Network?

It is likely that your Wi-Fi performs the same today as it did years ago, but nobody is complaining since for them it works the same as it always has.  It is also likely that if they were accustomed to an up to date wireless system/design and it was then swapped out for what you currently have, almost all of them would submit a Wi-Fi issue ticket. 

An old Wi-Fi system simply cannot perform as well as a new one.  An old system will consistently provide lower throughput, less performance consistency, and a higher likelihood of AP failure.  What do all these things mean?

  • Lower throughput generates more buffering of videos, longer page load times, and slow downloads.
  • Less performance consistency – Loading the same web page or performing the same task takes different amounts of time for no apparent reason, pages may fail to load, and frequent page reloads may be required.
  • Higher likelihood of AP failure – as AP’s get older they are less likely to load properly when they are power cycled. If all the AP’s were rebooted, would 100% of them boot properly?  What if the reboot was not a scheduled event?

Summary

While for many the need to upgrade the wireless system may seem obvious, it is not for everyone.  I hope that this short article will help you justify that need to whomever it may not be obvious too.  This article not intended to suggest that if your network does not have the latest and greatest of Wi-Fi hardware installed that you need to rip it out.  However, this article should help you understand why it may need to be updated.  Maybe your hardware is new, but your design is old.  Maybe your WLC does not support the latest code, and the latest code is required to support the AP’s that make the most business sense to purchase. 

Written by John Meachum

John began his technical career as an Electronics Engineer in 1999, performing circuit design and assembly language programming. John joined Network Solutions, Inc. in 2004 and has progressed to be one of our premier Wireless team lead engineers.

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