Wi-Fi – Business Opportunity or a Threat

Developments in Wi-Fi continue at a pace. IEEE 802.11ac currently provides dramatic increases in speed over 802.11n with a further staggering factor of ten increase just around the corner. Just what the BYOD doctor wanted to fix the office bottlenecks.

We are an increasingly mobile society both in business and in our private lives and this mobility is characterised by the devices we carry around with us in order to keep connected whilst we are away from our offices and homes.

The connectivity method of choice is currently split between 4G and Wi-Fi however new voice-over-Wi-Fi technology is enabling consumers to use their Wi-Fi routers to improve indoor mobile coverage for themselves.

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 17.10.09This is an interesting development. When you sign up for a Vodafone, O2 or EE service you get to become part of their affinity based cloud service for Wi-Fi access to data when you are out and about. This is a bit of a throwback to the days of 2G and 3G service availability when trying to get web pages to load on a mobile device was seriously tedious if not often impossible. 4G changed all that but you are still often up against the buffers on your inclusive data bundle that could cost you money.

News that the big mobile network operators are also opening up the ability to make Voice over Wi-Fi calls as an alternative to their metered networks (albeit these are pretty much an inclusive bundled part of the cost package) just adds a further dimension to the mix and another application for Wi-Fi.

In its August 2016 UK Communications Market Review the regulator noted some key facts regarding this mobility.
Ofcom research showed that there was an increase in the proportions of mobile users who used various mobile data services (including web browsing, email services, social networking, downloading apps, instant messaging and watching
AV content and video clips) in the year to 2016.

The driver of these increases is likely to be the growth in smartphone take-up.

  • Six in ten mobile users (61%) said that they browsed the internet on their mobile phone in 2016, a five percentage point increase on 2015.
  • Over half of mobile users (57%) sent or received email.
  • Just under half (49%) used social networking sites/apps.

The proportions of mobile users who accessed email and social networks, and watched AV content, all increased by six percentage points since 2015, while the proportion of those using instant messaging and watching video clips increased by seven percentage points.

Overall the amount of data we are all consuming rose by 40 per cent over the last year.

Presently Wi-Fi is available pretty much everywhere and is increasingly seen as mission critical for SMBs.

With the 802.11ac protocol adoption set to overtake 802.11n in 2016, what does this mean for IT managers, business owners and the future wired and wireless network?

Stuart Bate, Sales Project Manager at Distributor Nimans, says that Wi-Fi represents a tremendous business opportunity for resellers and is one of the fastest growing sales areas at Nimans. It’s a natural fit for resellers to branch out away from traditional telephony sales.

Commenting on the current state of play in the market Bate says, “The 802.11ac wireless protocol became mainstream in 2015. This was designed to cater for the latest devices. The Wi-Fi Alliance introduces new standards every few years which denotes how fast Wi-Fi can run.

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 17.10.04The average Access Point that runs on the previous Wireless 802.11n standard is 300mps but with AC the entry level is 867mps so there’s a big difference. AC is designed more around business use than N was. People can use AC more as a standalone network within their premises for PC’s, laptops and all other devices. It caters for a much bigger density with more people connecting at the same time.

However general adoption at the moment is very low. Here at Nimans we are launching some awareness campaigns to make resellers realise there’s a big difference between the two. Cost difference shouldn’t be a major problem. You do need to upgrade the Access Points but existing Samsung controllers can still be used for example, and nothing needs to be re-wired.

One of the strongest arguments we are saying to resellers is that if their customers are upgrading their devices every year but they are not upgrading their Wi-Fi infrastructure at the back end they are undermining the performance of those devices.”

Bate is convinced the way forward is very much 802.11ac.

“That’s where the industry is heading but there’s also another new development in the pipeline with Wave 2 of AC coming out from several major players towards the back end of this year. It’s another massive leap forward with 6Gbps on the connections.

N is still being deployed, either due to cost or simple lack of awareness. The advantage of going to AC is very obvious and Wave 2 will be even more powerful.

Another consideration resellers should be aware of is that newer devices are using a new frequency which is 5GHZ. This was introduced a few years ago too. It is available on N and AC and easily surpasses the previous 2.4GHZ that Wi-Fi was traditionally working on. The 2.4GHZ space has got very crowded with DECT phones, car alarms, Bluetooth and wireless headsets all using it. So if a lot of those devices are in the same area it crowds that air space and shortens the range of Wi-Fi. 5GHZ is a clean signal frequency that is not being used elsewhere so there are much faster speeds being generated. It’s another important factor resellers should be aware of.”

Low Cost Factor

Steve Johnson, Regional Director, Northern Europe at Ruckus Wireless, says that with over two billion Wi-Fi devices shipped every year (source: Wi-Fi Alliance), Wi-Fi is a very low cost infrastructure.

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 17.09.54“Wi-Fi offers nearly ubiquitous device support and can support applications ranging from parking meters to live video conferencing, and these needs are only set to increase. Organisations need to therefore consider both the current requirements but also what the future may hold when investing in wireless infrastructure. Is it secure? Can it cope with multiple employees joining at once? Does it offer adequate coverage in all necessary areas of the business? These are just a few of the questions that should be carefully considered before making an investment.

The opportunities that come with 802.11ac are vast when it comes to performance. As more and more products are being brought to market that are designed with 802.11ac in mind like new Wave 2 wireless access points (APs) and upgraded management software, this can double Wi-Fi client density and data rates over previous generations, while also being compatible with previous updates. Wave 2 APs use a more modern chipset, which offers better sensitivity. This means better connectivity and greater range, regardless of what standard the connected device supports. For business owners and IT managers, this means that the SMB is able to deliver the highest performance Wi-Fi possible, optimising signals for every client and transmission and keeping clients connected when it matters most.”

Massive Growth

Simon Blewitt, Technical Director at Daisy says that the art of designing a wireless network has definitely undergone some significant change over the last few years.

“I remember being asked to design a wireless network that would support the 60% of the office that had devices, now, just last week I designed the infrastructure for a large finance company with the remit of supporting two-three devices per person. There has been massive growth of mobile device usage and in turn this has dictated the new approach to how we go about designing wireless networks.

Where once just one wireless access point was enough to cover an area that would support 20-40 people, the increase in devices in the workplace means that in order to successfully deliver the coverage and capacity demand, the number of access points are increasing. So whereas coverage once indicated the number of required access points throughout a building, we are now seeing that it is much more a question of capacity planning and catering for high density (HD).

HD is a buzz-term that relates to a high concentration of devices in a particular location and this was traditionally used when referring to things like stadiums, however this term is now being used when discussing office networks, and subsequently the term VHD – or very high density – has now started to crop up in conversations.

If not dealt with in the right way, the users – whether they are employees or customers – will find themselves experiencing a lot of interference and that is why it is so important to carry out radio frequency (RF) planning through wireless site surveys. This is to understand and plan the capacity and not just the coverage.”

With regards the move to 802.11ac Blewitt says this is definitely not something that IT managers can ignore.
“All newly-manufactured devices – from tablets, smartphones and even laptops – are being built to support ‘AC’ protocol, so ensuring that their access points are AC-compatible is paramount. Especially in retail and hospitality where Wi-Fi networks are made available to customers. Those who are still only 2.4Ghz-enabled networks will find themselves letting their customers down.

One of our customers just the other day was carrying out testing on a wireless access point using an old laptop that only supports 802.11g, and the throughput even on an 802.11ac compatible access point was less than 20Mbps, when it should have been 20 times that and more. This goes to show how important it is to performance that the devices connected to the network are AC-compatible.”

Blewitt says that BYOD has been a buzzword for some time, however now it is almost a given that employees expect to be able to connect to the company Wi-Fi network rather than having to use their own data.

“So, there’s no denying that BYOD has had an impact on the pressure on IT teams. For an IT manager who may have maintained a Wi-Fi network for a number of years without experiencing any issues, the increase of people connecting multiple devices to that network means that they must start widening support to cover that demand.

The upgrade of access points to support dual frequencies and up to date protocols such as 802.11ac must be at the top of every IT manager’s list when it comes to wireless networking.

For SMBs, traditionally their ADSL router would have Wi-Fi incorporated into it – most probably 2.4GB. What we are seeing is SMBs now looking at enterprise solutions that are more capable of coping with the heightened level of connected devices. As a result, they are also able to implement multiple access points that are all connected, enabling a seamless connection throughout the premises. The wireless functionality in ADSL routers were not built for this level of connectivity that users are now expecting and need.”

Back End Importance

According to Blewitt this is where we see how important the back-end networks are to the effective running of a wireless network and the reason why we are seeing more people switch to fibre from ADSL to be able to cope from a capacity point of view.

“One of the key elements of ensuring the resilience and reliability of a Wi-Fi network is the back-end LAN infrastructure. Years back there was a big focus on ensuring that there was resilience in the LAN switches, however as technology has evolved we have seen a shift to wireless devices that are all relying on one single access point.

If that access point was to go down, it would take the whole premises down with it. So it is important that they have resilience built into both the access points and the back-end LAN infrastructure, as well as looking at how the two are connected to each other to maximum uptime.

What we are now seeing in the newer access points are two LAN connections, this is not just to support throughput and performance, but it is for resilience as well. The dual connections mean that they can be connected with multiple LAN switches, so in the event of one going down all is not lost.”

A New Approach?

Jason King, Director of Marketing at Adtran says that as employees migrate from a primarily wired infrastructure to a wireless one, the growth in devices on the network also highlights a need for additional security.

“IT staff at most organisations have been trying to keep up with user needs and expectations but the requirements are evolving too fast. Today’s IT needs to be faster, nimbler, handle many devices, provide tighter security, scale quickly and be cost effective. To achieve this, a new approach needs to be taken to the problem.

The traditional Wi-Fi architecture has been based upon a controller-based switch that becomes the central point of intelligence and control for all access points (AP’s). The controller becomes the choke point and bottleneck for the network, requiring IT to add more controllers as inevitably more users and devices come onto the network.”

King claims this traditional architecture has been replaced by a Cloud Wireless design where the controller is eliminated, with management and control of the network virtualised in the cloud and says, “This approach greatly increases the ability to scale the network to meet Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) demands, with the ability to support a factor of 10X more devices than before.

The Cloud Wireless approach has also opened up the possibility of organisations taking advantage of a managed and hosted service for their Wi-Fi network, offloading the management burden from their strapped IT staff.”

King concludes, “For a company, the first priority is employee productivity – how to give them the technology tools that facilitates their long term business success. The technology needs to be an enabler that influences them so that their approach to new challenges and opportunities is empowered by self-confidence and critical thinking. That’s why the network solution needs to be one that enriches this experience and puts company success above all.”

Ed Says… W i-Fi has become an expected ask from every public space in our country; a hotel without Wi-Fi is unthinkable; our travel/everyday destinations are decided based on two questions – mobile connectivity and Wi-Fi. Whilst many observers are calling BYOD a fading trend the fact remains that an increasing number of devices per employee need access to the company network and IT managers need to head off any potential bottlenecks.

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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine