Access Point Coverage: Implementing Effective Wi-Fi

In order to implement optimized wireless access point (WAP) coverage, 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.

Start with a floor plan so you get an idea of the office layout and the square footage of the space. To achieve certainty on RF (radio frequency) signal reception, you need a wireless engineer to conduct a site survey. A wireless survey gives you a better idea of potential obstructions to signal propagation.

Once the physical aspects of the space have been properly assessed, a best practice is to incorporate the people aspects (user count and IT activities) before moving on to the design phase. When it comes to wireless network design, there are are two pieces of foundation to build on: the distance from the WAP and the end user density around a WAP. Knowing these two factors will advance your network design process.

High Density Access Point Coverage

Let’s start with density. Although commercial grade access point coverage is usually 800-1,100 square feet, this is often the best-case scenario in a wide-open space, i.e. there are no walls, pipes, masonry, or HVAC to interfere. It’s not the same as a home environment with three or four people connecting to the internet over a store bought router.

There’s a big difference in bandwidth usage between responding to your gmail and a population of users streaming Netflix at home (yes, this happens). For the latter group, the last thing you want is the latest episode of Bridgerton overloading your access point!

Director of Client Operations at TechNoir Solutions, Shawn Sumner, says, “… a lot of people think wireless is in the ether, an unlimited resource. 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 Internet to Go Around

Wi-Fi is a finite resource; ever notice how your Zoom calls or Netflix streams become fuzzy at certain times of the day while you’re working from home/Netflix and chillin’? This is often a result of your neighbors putting a strain on your Internet Service Providers pooled bandwidth resources at the same time, resulting in “less internet to go around.”

How does this relate to business? Let’s imagine a small company in a 400 square foot, open floor plan office; add 15 people using 30 wireless devices to that room. One access point mounted in the hallway outside does not have the capacity to provide sufficient service/bandwidth to support those people. 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 Wi-Fi performance (more on this design later).

A well-designed wireless network also 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 Wi-Fi usage when the space is fully occupied.

Questions to Assess Density:

  • How many users will physically be in the office?
  • What locations will employees sit in the office where they’ll connect to the network?
  • How many employees will be in those locations?
  • Do any employees have more than one wireless device?
  • What are they using the internet for? General connectivity (email, Microsoft Office, etc.)?  High availability connectivity (streaming videos, video conferencing, running applications in the Cloud)?
  • Do you host events where there are more users than usual on the network?
  • Do you allow personal devices on the Wi-Fi/guest Wi-Fi?

Know Your Devices

Designing appropriate access point coverage means knowing the coverage capabilities of your WAPs. It’s a choice between a network design with more lower-cost access points that have entry level RF signals, or a design with fewer higher-cost WAPs that broadcast several strong signals. You need to plan for whatever combination enables maximum upload and download speeds for all devices accessing Wi-Fi in that space. Knowing the specs on the hardware leads to an informed decision. Finding the happy medium between budget and performance factors may be elusive.

For example, Meraki an MR36 won’t cover the way an MR46 does. The main reason for this is they have 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 antenna usage 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 800 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, hardware specs list ideal user counts; 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” section.

Use as Directed

It’s crucial to follow the manufacturer’s installation guide because it involves more than attaching 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

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 dry wall? 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, Location, Location

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.

For complex set-ups, conduct Wireless Heat Map Survey to determine optimal AP placement. TechNoir has the tools to provide you with that information. Get a quote today!