Wireless Networking – Basic Principles

Wireless networking is one of the fastest developing areas in networking and while recent changes have brought huge advances in speed and availability, it is that expectation of always-on Internet that can also cause problems in densely populated areas, or in certain types of building.

In this article, we will establish some core principles and offer some guidance should you experience problems with your wireless network.

The first thing to note is that the wireless network is not the same as your Internet connection. As an ISP, Cerberus provides Internet connectivity using fibre installed into your premises. Where fibre is not available, our service will use the copper phone line that comes into the building. The internet service is then terminated on your router and distributed using either the Ethernet LAN ports or the wireless network function on your router.

In many cases where a slow internet speed has been reported to us, this is observed using a wireless connection – often using a smart phone or a tablet device. The first thing that is needed is to establish the speed of the Internet connection using a device that is connected to the router using an Ethernet cable. If you connect a laptop or a PC to your router and repeat the broadband speed test, it is sensible also to make sure that all other devices that are connected wirelessly to the router are first disconnected. The simplest way to do this is to log into the router and temporarily disable the wireless network. Then, once you repeat the speed test, you should get a more accurate view of the connection speed.

If you want to get a true picture of your connection speed, re-test your broadband speeds at different times of the day. If you still see slower speeds than expected, please raise a case with our support team and they will investigate.

Once the speed of the Internet connection has been tested, it is possible that you will have observed a big difference in connection speed between the wired and the wireless connection. This doesn’t mean that the wireless performance on your router is not able to match the performance of your broadband service, it probably just means that there are other factors at play.

One other thing to note here is that you should always consider whether an Ethernet connection would be a better option for a device connected to your internal network. A physical network connection is more reliable and will offer consistent performance that is not affected by environmental factors or other devices on the network. If your key considerations are reliability and maximum performance, a network cable will be the best choice.

As we mentioned above, many people use smart phones or tablet computers to connect to the Internet and, as these don’t have an Ethernet port, running cables is not going to solve the problem of a slow wireless network. That said, you should still consider moving devices to a cabled connection (and turning off the WiFi) where possible, as the fewer devices you have on your wireless network, the less likely you are to have them competing for available bandwidth on the channel you are using.

Multiple devices can be connected using a network switch with gigabit Ethernet ports. Many switches will also have the option to provide power to your devices. Where those devices can be powered from the network port, this will eliminate any additional power supplies and cables, resulting in less mess. The team at Cerberus can provide advice on network hardware and we can supply this together with cables, all pre-configured and ready for you to plug in.

Environmental Factors

The building in which you are setting up your wireless network will have a huge effect on the performance of the WiFi network and not always in a predictable way. While there are some simple rules to follow, it is not possible to say, ‘new buildings are better wireless’, for example.

Old buildings will often have thick walls built from stone or brick. Other buildings may have thick concrete walls. These will all usually cause problems getting a decent signal between rooms. If the wireless access point is in one room, and the device accessing the network is in another, you are likely to see a lower signal strength, and this will affect the speed of your network connection.

On a positive note, the thicker walls (and the likely greater distance between buildings) are likely to reduce the strength of any neighbouring wireless networks and avoid issues with competing networks so we are less likely to have to have to change the wireless channel being used.

Newer buildings are often constructed using timber/drywall stud walls. This will often improve connectivity between rooms. One thing that will cause problems, however is foil-backed insulation or plasterboard, something that the wireless signal will struggle to pass through.

Which Band Should I Use?

There are far more network devices in use around the world that connect to wireless networks using 2.4GHz than 5GHz. 2.4GHz was the original frequency band that was adopted as the original standard for WiFi. As the number of wireless network devices has proliferated, so the number of devices using the 2.4GHz band has increased; resulting in congestion and reduced performance.

This is caused by the increased chances of collisions and retries when a device transmits in a congested band. Moving to a quieter channel within the band can sometimes improve matters but in high-density residential developments, 2.4GHz can often be too busy to offer anything like usable performance.

Based on this, it would be reasonable to assume that moving to 5GHz would be a simple way to fix the problem. In many cases, this might be true, but we should first look at the differences between the two and see where 2.4GHz might be a better option.

5GHz is a newer standard for wireless networking, and as a result there are fewer devices that support it. Switching to 5GHz could result in older devices not being able to access the network. However, it does mean that 5GHz is much less congested band.

2.4GHz vs 5GHz WiFi

2.4GHz wireless signals travel through solid objects like brick and concrete better than 5GHz WiFi. This often means that any neighbouring wireless networks that are competing on the same channel will be using 2.4GHz rather than 5GHz.

With 5GHz, any wireless signal from a neighbouring network will be more highly attenuated, but also, signals from one room to another internally will be weaker and may result in shorter range for an access point.

Horses for Courses

In an urban environment, in a building such as a modern office or apartment block, 5GHz is likely to be the best choice for your wireless network. This is due to modern construction processes, using stud walling. It is also possible that you will see many neighbouring WiFi networks. Moving away from the crowded 2.4GHZ band should give your devices some space to talk to each other without bumping into traffic on those other networks.

Even so, a 2.4GHz network may be required to support legacy devices, or to get the signal past foil-backed building materials. If this is the case, it is always recommended to scan for nearby wireless networks, look at the channel they are using, and find a quieter channel for your own setup.

In a rural setting, where you are unlikely to see any neighbouring wireless networks, a 2.4GHz network is probably a better option. In a farmhouse, for example, the 2.4GHz signal will travel through the internal walls better, offering increased range and connection speeds overall.

There are now newer WiFi standards that aim to resolve the problem not knowing which band is best for your network. WiFi6 uses multiple frequencies at the same time and, as more network devices become available that can support the new standard, this will be a good option. For now, however, WiFi6 access points are expensive and may result in older devices not being able to connect.

Internet Connection or WiFi?

As we’ve seen above, getting a fast and reliable WiFi network working throughout your property can be a complicated process, requiring trade-offs and testing to ensure optimum performance.

As an ISP, Cerberus Networks provides Internet Connectivity. Where we include a wireless router with an Internet package, while it is a modern device offering good levels of performance, there is no way that the configuration of that device can be tailored in advance to your own unique requirements. The routers we provide have WiFi to a specific standard for the power and signals used. However, we can’t guarantee that a router we supply will be able to cover the whole of your property. The team at Cerberus will work with you to establish the cause of any problems, but it may be required to change your frequency band, or even to add additional WiFi access points to provide greater network density or range.

Wireless Networking is Complicated

Most wireless network deployments in an office will consist of dedicated wireless access points that offer specific features to ensure that the WiFi network is able to provide the expected connection speeds across the whole premises.

The all-in-one solution offered by broadband routers will, by definition, never be as good as a dedicated access point or multiple access points covering an entire property. Installing access points on each floor of the property, or in each room will provide good coverage, higher speeds and better reliability.

Dedicated WiFi network hardware from many vendors uses several additional techniques to improve network performance. Features such as beam forming, use an array of antennae inside the unit to actively direct the signal to a device, reducing interference to and from other devices.

Some access points can also adjust their power level automatically to stop their signal overlapping with a neighbouring network.

Another consideration for wireless networks is the location of the access points themselves. These should be situated away from large metal objects (such as radiators) and where the signal has the best chance of getting out to network devices without having to travel through walls or other objects. Putting the access point higher up can also improve performance, meaning the signal doesn’t have to travel through furniture.

Cerberus has many years’ experience installing and managing wireless networks and offers a range of solutions from simple mesh WiFi for homes, to campus-wide installations for thousands of users.

To discuss your wireless networking requirements, please get in touch with one of the Cerberus team.

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