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Have you ever experienced big fluctuations in Wi-Fi coverage quality, even while moving around your home? Now imagine that same issue spread out over an even larger area, such as a school campus, hospital or corporate office complex.
While users who are relatively close to the wireless access point emitting the Wi-Fi signal will enjoy excellent connections, those farther away will see much slower speeds. In enclosed or remote areas in which cellular connectivity isn’t readily available as an alternative, such dead zones can become major drains on productivity.
Fortunately, effective large-area Wi-Fi solutions can minimize the often high variance in wireless strength across home or office network environments. Individual devices such as range extenders and repeaters can greatly improve Wi-Fi signals, while more elaborate configurations such as wireless mesh networks or managed Wi-Fi systems can virtually eliminate dead spots.
Read on to learn more about why coverage is often inconsistent in Wi-Fi environments and what specific steps you can take to ensure overall better wireless coverage.
As a wireless protocol, Wi-Fi faces unique limitations that do not apply to wired standards such as Ethernet. Its signal has to pass through the air en route from the access point to connected devices, possibly encountering multiple issues along the way. While the potential problems aren’t as wide-reaching as those facing 5G cellular, they’re sufficient to be noticeable to end users.
For example, thick walls will degrade the Wi-Fi signal’s strength before it reaches its destination. Household appliances such as microwaves can also be an issue, not simply because of their physical presence but because they may emit on the same frequency (the 2.4 GHz band) as many dual band Wi-Fi routers (the other band is 5 GHz).
Depending on the building materials used throughout the wireless environment, it’s possible that major signal losses could be an everyday occurrence. Couple that with the fact that a device will typically try to hang on to a known Wi-Fi signal until it goes completely out of range, and you have a blueprint for recurring frustration.
All of the solutions to this problem attempt to either improve the quality of the Wi-Fi signal or extend its range. Let’s start with the simplest remedies and then work our way up to the more sophisticated ones that you would likely see in larger home or office setups.
A router’s position matters a lot. It should be centrally located and free from surrounding obstructions, so not in a cabinet or closet. An open location allows for a better signal and less overheating.
To keep your router and other network gear as fast and efficient as possible, it’s also important to upgrade its firmware. Most modern devices do this automatically, meaning there’s nothing to worry about. Older models may require a manual updating process, though.
The router’s firmware may also be replaceable with the open source DD-WRT. This Linux-based operating system can open up some additional features that might not be available on out-of-the-box routers, such as more extensive customization options and the ability to easily configure a virtual private network. Some of these features may boost wireless performance.
Pay attention to the frequency the router or modem is broadcasting on, too. Dual band equipment will emit both a 2.4 and a 5 GHz signal. While 2.4 GHz has more range, it’s slower and more prone to interference than 5 GHz. The optimal setting is often to give both frequencies the same SSID (if the router allows it). That way, devices can connect to the SSID and then automatically switch between whichever signal is currently better.
If a router is more than five years old, it’s time to consider a replacement. Newer models can support much faster speeds and superior efficiency through support for industry standards such as Wi-Fi 6 and MU-MIMO. The latter permits a wireless access point to communicate with multiple devices via multiple streams simultaneously, thereby improving network responsiveness and bandwidth allocation.
Finally, in terms of basic due diligence, make sure all Wi-Fi SSIDs are password-protected with WPA2 or later. In addition to protecting online activities, doing so helps prevent Wi-Fi leeches who latch onto unprotected SSIDs and use up bandwidth.
There are multiple ways to extend the range of a Wi-Fi network. Maybe the simplest is to replace the relatively low-gain antennas that are built into a router/modem with larger ones that will significantly boost the network’s signal.
Range extenders - also known as repeaters or boosters depending on the vendor - are a bit more elaborate. Essentially, they capture and rebroadcast the wireless signal from the router or modem, extending it to locations that can’t otherwise get good coverage.
The chief challenge in relying on range extenders alone is placement. Depending on where you situate them, they might provide a major boost or fail to make much of a difference. Suboptimal placement can also lead to overheating as the extender struggles to latch onto a signal.
Regardless of position, extenders cannot match the original speed of the signal they’re extending. It can also be irritating to manually switch between the range extender’s SSID and that of the main router as you move around.
Extenders may be minimalistic designs that allow them to be plugged into an electrical outlet. More advanced designs will usually have their own allotment of ports, including multiple Ethernet ports for faster connections for devices in the extended area.
It may be possible to directly connect a modem or router to an extender via its WAN (not LAN) port, although the complications of running the necessary cables might make it not worth it. Still, a wired connection is always going to be more efficient than a wireless counterpart.
Consumer-grade mesh solutions such as Google Wi-Fi, Linksys Velop and Netgear Orbi have risen to prominence as complete replacements for traditional Wi-Fi systems. Mesh solutions do not revolve around a single centralized router like traditional Wi-Fi networks, instead spreading out the wireless signal across multiple nodes. All of these nodes still connect back to the same network, though. Data is also backhauled between them over a dedicated band or the best band currently available.
The benefits of wireless mesh networks are extensive:
Although wireless communication is the default between nodes in a mesh network, it is also possible to configure Ethernet backhaul on some mesh networking solutions. This entails connecting all of the nodes with cabling via their Ethernet ports, resulting in much faster interconnection between them compared to a wireless configuration.
Running this amount of cabling might not be feasible in all large area Wi-Fi environments. However, it’s the best setup from a performance perspective, giving you the most reliable and scalable wireless mesh coverage across even an extensive target coverage area.
All of the solutions we have described so far require at least a decent level of technical knowhow to implement and manage. Plus, a lot of work is involved in keeping up with the evolution of wireless technologies and industry standards.
An enterprise managed Wi-Fi solution entrusts every phase of the wireless network’s lifecycle to a managed service provider (MSP) like Telesystem. Organizations like hospitals and schools can have a reliable Wi-Fi solution configured over a large area, with all technical details, security upgrades and activity monitoring handled by the MSP.
Advanced features like guest Wi-Fi segmentation ensure that network resources aren’t drained by visitors performing tasks unrelated to the organization’s mission. The end result of a managed Wi-Fi solution is around the clock reliability and peace of mind that all performance and security issues are being promptly identified and resolved.
A software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) is not a Wi-Fi solution per se, but it can help organizations increase the reliability of their connectivity across relatively large areas. SD-WAN platforms create a layer over the company network, allowing for highly automated and more sophisticated management of its traffic flows
For example, it can ensure that the best paths on the network at any given moment are available to real-time applications such as VoIP telephony and video conferencing. The SD-WAN frees these apps from having to compete for bandwidth with less critical traffic, plus it lets them do so using high-bandwidth broadband connections instead of just the thin MPLS links of a traditional WAN.
Additional benefits of an SD-WAN include easier deployment of new branch offices, added security and superior performance from cloud-based applications. Considering that many workflows now center around services such as Microsoft Office 365 or Google Drive and span multiple devices, implementing an SD-WAN can be the perfect complement to a large area Wi-Fi solution, making it easier to consistently serve numerous users and devices.
Telesystem is an experienced MSP with more than 25 years of working with customers across the U.S. on solutions ranging from hosted VoIP communications to enterprise managed Wi-Fi. Our network services portfolio is extensive and includes options for broadband, Ethernet, dedicated internet access and MPLS in addition to our Wi-Fi solutions for businesses.
Whether you need full end-to-end management of your large area Wi-Fi setup or faster internet connection for your organization, our team can help you find the right setup for your particular requirements. To learn more about how to get started, visit our network services page overview, or contact our team. You can also use our online quote tool to enter some basic information and get an estimate.