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Commercial Wireless Access Points: Implementing Effective Wi-Fi Coverage for Businesses

One of the things we get asked most about, is how to ensure effective Wi-Fi coverage for businesses.  In order to implement optimized wireless access point (WAP) or Wi-Fi for businesses, there are a few things to consider: the size of the space, the user count or number of devices on the network, and what the users are running on those devices.

For commercial spaces, it is recommended that you start with a floor plan. This will allow you to understand the office layout and the square footage of the space. To achieve the best RF (radio frequency) signal reception, you should find a wireless engineer to conduct a site survey. A wireless survey gives you a better idea of how the building materials in your office will reduce the WAP signal propagation.

For residential spaces, a RF survey would not be cost effective. However, we can take some best practices from the RF modeling and put them to use in a residential environment. Take these into consideration when placing your wireless router.

  • Placing a WAP behind furniture or in cabinets will greatly diminish wifi signal distance and quality
  • Try to mount the WAP in highest location possible, ceilings are best, if possible
  • Brick, cinderblock and wood have some of the highest RF absorption rates
  • One drywall wall will diminish the signal distance and strength by 2x

Once the physical aspects of the space have been properly assessed, the next step is to incorporate the “people aspects” (number of people that may be using the WAP and these people’s activities) before moving on to the design phase.

When it comes to wireless network design, there are are two foundational pieces to build from:

  • The distance from the WAP to the device that will be using it
  • The end user density for the WAP.

Knowing these two factors will advance your network design process.

High Density Wi-Fi Coverage for Businesses

Let’s start with density. Commercial WAPs can cover a space of 800-1,100 square feet.  However, this is the best-case scenario in a wide-open space, i.e. there are no walls, pipes, masonry, or HVAC to interfere. A home environment, with three or four people in different rooms, connecting to the internet, over a store bought router is a completely different story. You can start to see how the environment factors can affect the Wi-Fi for businesses.

There’s a big difference in bandwidth use between responding to your Gmail and streaming Netflix.

TechNoir Solutions’ Director of Operations, Shawn Sumner, says, “people tend to think wireless internet is in the ether, an unlimited resource, like air. That’s just not the case – you can’t put 60 people, who are all streaming HD videos, around one wireless access point and expect it to work. Performance will suffer.”

There’s Only so Much Wi-Fi for Businesses to Go Around

Wi-Fi is a finite resource; when you are working from home, have you ever noticed your Zoom calls or Netflix streaming becomes fuzzy at certain times of the day? This is often a result of your neighbors putting a strain on pooled bandwidth resources from Comcast (or any residential ISP) resulting in “less internet to go around.”

How does this relate to business? Imagine a small business, in a 1400 square foot, open floor plan office. Add 15 people, using 30 total wireless devices. The WAP is located in a closet on one side of the office, where the internet service is located. In this scenario, the WAP will not have the capacity to provide sufficient service/bandwidth to support all the devices in the entire office.

To make this experiment more interesting, add some employees using high bandwidth applications like video conferencing. Wireless network performance grinds to a halt at this point. In this situation, the network design team should have changed the location of the WAP to reduce poor wifi performance (more on this design later).

Well-designed, Wi-Fi coverage for businesses takes into consideration the maximum seating capacity in community spaces and training rooms. If there is a space where wireless device count can double for an event or training, the network design should account for peak wifi usage when the space is fully occupied.

Questions to Assess Density:

  • How many employees will physically be in the office?
  • What locations will employees sit when they connect to the network?
  • How many employees will be in those locations?
  • Do any employees have more than one wireless device?
  • What are the employees using the internet for?
    • General connectivity (email, Microsoft Office, etc.)
    • High availability connectivity (streaming videos, video conferencing, running applications in the cloud)
  • Would you host events where the number of people using the WAPs could dramatically increase?
  • Do you allow personal devices on your wifi network?

Know the Devices that Provide Wif-Fi for Businesses

Designing appropriate Wi-Fi coverage for businesses knowing the capabilities of your WAPs. It’s a choice of a network designs:

  • A design using multiple lower-cost access points that have basic RF signal strength
  • A design with a few, higher-cost, WAPs that broadcast several strong RF signals.

You need to plan for whatever combination enables maximum upload and download speeds for all devices accessing wifi in that space. Knowing the specs on the hardware leads to an informed decision. Finding the happy medium between budget and performance factors can be elusive.

For example, if we compare two commercial WAPs, a Meraki MR36 won’t provide the coverage the way an MR46 does. The main reason is that the MR36 has fewer Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO) antennas. According to Wikipedia, MIMO is a wireless technology that uses multiple transmitters and receivers to transfer more data at the same time.

Think of the way antennas are used, like multiple people standing on thin ice: if the people spread out on the ice, it’s less likely to break. If they stand in one spot on the ice, they’ll put too much pressure in one location and they’ll end up in the water. A wireless access point with multiple antennas takes the pressure off each individual antenna, permitting more reliable connections.

If you opt for an affordable, entry level model you typically have to increase the number of WAPs to accommodate for proper coverage (that’s assuming there’s more than a few users in an 1400 square foot space).

While the range of both WAPs may still be the same, the speed and density will vary based on the number of antennas. Typically, WAP specifications list the optimal number of devices for the best performance. It is harder to quantify environmental factors that affect the radio signals in the space itself. We’ll cover that factor in the “Proper Product Placement Means Great Wi-Fi for Businesses” section.

Use as Directed

In order to get the best Wi-Fi coverage for businesses, it’s crucial to follow the manufacturer’s installation guide.  These guides give more information than just how to attach the mount cradle and using the proper tools to hang the WAP. The network engineer should follow pre-installation steps beginning with configuring and preparing the network. Next, the engineer needs to check and upgrade the firmware. Then the engineer should check and configure the firewall. Finally, it’s time to assign the IP address to the device.

Proper Product Placement Means Great Wi-Fi Coverage for Businesses

A common mistake IT companies make when installing wireless access points is to use the device’s coverage radius as the default measurement for spacing between the WAPs. What they don’t take into account are the numerous points of interference. Unless you’re dealing with an unobstructed, wide-open space, you’re not going to get the maximum square footage. Period. Building materials and WAP mounting location contribute to RF range and signal strength diffraction loss or attenuation.

Does the Wi-Fi signal need to penetrate brick, timber, or drywall? How about a steel girder, metal door, or filing cabinet? Kitchen cabinets and appliances? Regardless of WAP’s signal strength, materials that traditionally cause radio interference still must be considered in the WAP network design.

Another common mistake in wireless network design is to place the WAPs in hallways instead of the offices – the rationale being the signal will travel further and to more locations. While that is arguably the case for the hallways themselves, the RF signal strength will dwindle before it reaches the far end of an office;  the last place you want dead spots is where employees actually do work.

For ideal access point coverage, best practice dictates placing the WAPs in the center of the office – preferably in the center of where users and their devices will be located.

Questions to assess placement:

  • Do signals have to travel through any walls? 
  • What are walls made of?
  • Does your office have open space or is it divided into offices? 
  • Is the office area cluttered with large devices/filing cabinets? Large supporting columns? Tall dividers?

Location is Vital for Wi-Fi Coverage for Businesses

Moreover, the network engineer designing the wireless network should choose a WAP mounting location with a clear line of sight to the coverage area. By contrast, placing the AP in a high ceiling behind a timber rafter or exposed ducts will adversely impact the access point coverage. Think of the WAP as a camera: if the employees and their devices aren’t in the frame, they won’t be in “the picture.” This results in “path loss” of the wireless radio waves.

Ultimately, an effective wireless solution maximizes performance and coverage so every user on that network is happy (happiness is when all the Wi-Fi bars are lit)!

Taking a systematic approach with the wireless network design, one that considers distance, density and the office environment, means users won’t light up the support line. This is the end game for excellent Wi-Fi coverage for businesses.

For complex set-ups, conduct Wireless Heat Map Survey to determine optimal AP placement. TechNoir Solutions has the tools to provide you with informed decisions. Let’s talk!

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