Everything You Need to Know About Wi-Fi for Your Business
Central to any broadband strategy is the wireless (Wi-Fi) access point: a small device used to capture and transmit information wirelessly to laptops, tablets, smartphones and other devices. Homes and businesses are beginning to see an increase in the types of devices they’re connecting to their networks using wireless connections to make our houses and offices smarter and more automated: lights, signage, thermostats and printers, just to name a few.
Routers, in turn, determine the best way to transmit that information from one device to another. It is very common for a wireless access point, a basic firewall (network protection) and a router to be combined into a single device. These devices are typically referred to as “wireless routers,” despite the fact that they perform three distinct functions.
Wi-Fi networks provide a lot of benefits to users—the greatest being mobility and a relatively low cost to provide internet and network connectivity. However, there are also limitations. The signal can degrade over long distances and can have difficulty passing through solid objects such as walls and closed doors resulting inconsistent speeds or lost connectivity. Depending on the size of your business offices, multiple Wi-Fi access points may be required to ensure proper coverage of the space.
Selecting the best router for your business is a critical decision, especially considering the impact internet has on customer satisfaction and employee productivity.
Internet Device Options
VPN Firewall Routers
Typically, businesses will establish an internal network of connected devices that is secure and private. Over time, they may need to connect to a second network or the internet. The connection between these two networks is generally firewalled by using a specialized router designed to pass packets of information from one network privately via security policies configured on the device. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is an encrypted connection over a public network that protects the privacy and integrity of any data being transmitted. Both the firewall and VPN connections increase the security of the network and company information. These types of routers may support wired connections only or may have a wireless access point built into the device as well.
UTM Gateway or Firewall
Unified Threat Management (UTM) routers provide more advanced firewall protection, adding additional features such as virus and malware protection, content filtering, anti-spam functions and intrusion detection and prevention. A key consideration is that in many cases these advanced firewalls are managed by the manufacturer reducing the need for the business to staff someone to maintain and configure the device. However, these added features are often provided based on monthly or yearly subscription fees.
Broadband routers provide high-speed access to the internet for two or more computers using wired or wireless connections. Generally speaking, a broadband router is only one device in this transmission process; other devices include a DSL or cable modem, FTTx ONT, Ethernet switch or Wi-Fi access point. A business may procure separate equipment for each device or look for a solution with a combination of these functions in one device. A single device that functions as a basic firewall, router and wireless access point may also be referred to as a residential gateway by service providers.
Voice/Data/Fax/Voice Processing Routers
These devices are special access servers or gateways to route and process data used in voice, data, video and fax communications. These are not firewall routers, though firewall routers may have the same capabilities.
Many small and mid-size businesses operate a network of connected computers that span a relatively small geographic location. Also known as a Local Area Network (LAN), it’s typically confined to a few rooms or buildings. Several routers may be required to connect computers in multiple zones within the LAN. A core router functions as a central hub for all other routers, providing connectivity to the entire network infrastructure. In networks that are large enough to have these types of dedicated routers, it is more common to see dedicated wireless access points that are used to deliver Wi-Fi service to employees and guests, rather than a single device that functions as a router, firewall and access point.
Every router can be described using key features such as range, throughput, network type and single-band or dual-band. Range refers to the maximum distance the signal will travel to a receiving device. Throughput is the amount a data being sent per second. Throughput measures the speed of the connection.
Equipment vendors and other individuals or organizations gather and agree on a common set of features that devices must support to ensure that they can operate together. 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac are common wireless standards for modern Wi-Fi devices.
Network devices are allowed to operate on different frequencies, similar to the different frequencies used by individual radio stations. There are two main sets of channels that Wi-Fi devices are allowed to use, often referred to as the 2.4GHz band and the 5GHz band. If a router is single-band model it operates in either 2.4GHz or 5GHz mode, while dual-band models operate in both at the same time.
The size and configuration of your office space will also impact the Wi-Fi signal strength and range of your router. For example, a router capable of providing strong signals across 500 feet will suffice if it’s placed midway in your office spanning 1000 feet in length. However, if that office space is split into multiple rooms with thick concrete walls, you may require two or more access points to maintain high signal strength across all rooms. Factors such as frequency, radio output power, antenna gain or strength and router type also affect router range. Access points supporting more recent wireless standards, such as 802.11n or 802.11ac, may also have the ability to focus the wireless transmission on a single device. This capability is called beamforming.
The internet connection speeds that users experience are influenced by many factors. A Wi-Fi connection may be much faster than the internet connection available to the entire office. The maximum speed supported by wireless standards has increased greatly from the 11Mbps speeds enabled by the original 802.11b standard to 300Mbps speeds on common 802.11n hardware. The latest 802.11ac devices may be able to support speeds of 1000Mbps or more. Both the access point and the tablet or other device must support a similar standard to achieve the greatest speeds. Signal strength, interference or noise, and the number of antennas in each device are also major factors that influence speed.
Wireless routers are allowed to operate in two frequency bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Single-band devices can only transmit in either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz band. A dual-band device can transmit in both bands simultaneously. This is useful when the end user wants to support both legacy devices using legacy 802.11g/n standards, and newer devices that support 802.11ac. The decision between the two is based on the organization’s networking needs – this resource describes the differences in detail. Dual-band routers are recommended for organizations with large data requirements, a high number of users and expectations to scale Internet usage rapidly in the near future.
The supported wireless standard is a consideration when looking at the devices available to your company. Older devices typically operate using the 802.11g, or even the 802.11b standard. This supports frequencies in the 2.4Ghz, and operates at slower speeds. Devices running the more recent 802.11n or 802.11ac standards support high bandwidth, and often support both frequency bands.
Most router manufacturers advertise their products with marketing lingo and pseudo-features that should not affect your decision in choosing the appropriate router for your business. For example, many companies offer routers with high-speed multi-core processors. The truth is that many routers running tasks have low CPU utilization requirements and, therefore, overall performance advantage remains negligible. Some manufacturers offer ‘Tri-Band’ routers, but the product neither operates in three distinct frequency bands, nor does it offer significant performance boost. This article provides further information on this issue.
Many wireless electronic devices also operate in the same radio frequency range as a wireless router. Interference between radio signals of multiple devices potentially causes loss of signal strength and information transmitted by those devices. The 5GHz band experiences low interference from other applications but offers low signal range, especially if signals are blocked by walls.
For new deployments, the best long-term option today is a dual band 802.11ac wireless router or access points. These devices may cost a bit more than older devices. A good 802.11ac access point will support features that allow wireless connections to be optimized for individual devices resulting in greater throughout. Support for dual band operation will allow the broadest range of devices to connect to the network. Dual band operation also provides greater flexibility in avoiding interference which again helps maintain stable high speed connectivity.
Keeping it simple is a good general rule to reduce the level of complexity in the network. Start out small and begin adding additional features or capabilities as the business grows. Plan your business ahead to determine what features may be needed 2 – 5 years in the future, or talk to your broadband provider to devise an effective long-term wireless connectivity and managed Internet strategy for your business.