Find out about the things you need to consider when setting up a WiFi network for your business.
Where a decade or so ago business computing would have largely revolved around the desktop, in recent years there’s been a major shift towards the use of mobile devices. There’s greater emphasis on smartphones and tablets in the workplace and many companies have implemented bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies, allowing staff to use their own personal devices to complete work tasks.
As a result, extra demand has been placed on the need for wireless connections and networks have needed to adapt accordingly. Where business WiFi might once have been just a useful add-on, it’s now an essential tool for boosting productivity and promoting the sharing of information.
Most of us now have a WiFi connection at home, so having it in the workplace is a logical extension. But while setting up a wireless network at home is a matter of little more than plugging in a router, the more complex demands of a business means that things are a bit more complicated and there are a number of areas you need to consider.
The wireless networks of today are faster, more reliable and more secure than ever before. To ensure that you get the best performance, it’s important that your networking kit – in particular your access points – use the latest 802.11ac (wireless AC) standard. Introduced in 2014, this is backwards-compatible with earlier standards, so older kit will still be able to connect, albeit at a lower speed.
The wireless AC standard offers speeds of up to 1,300 Mbps, the most commonly used older standard, wireless N, only delivered up to 450 Mbps. There will, therefore, be a considerable performance difference with older kit. You can upgrade older PCs and laptops to work at wireless AC speeds simply by adding an adaptor that plugs into a USB port.
You also need to consider the possibility of interference. In a shared office building, for example, there may be several wireless networks. Other kit such as DECT phones can also cause interference with WiFi. Older equipment operates on a 2.4 GHz band which is more prone to these problems. Newer equipment is dual-band, giving the option of 5 GHz in addition to 2.4 GHz transmissions. This helps gets around the problem of interference as well as providing better network coverage since the 5GHz band is less congested.
Building a network
In setting up a WiFi network for your business, there are a number of things you need to consider. How many people will be using it? What sort of area does it need to cover? Do you need to provide guest access for contractors and other visitors? Do you plan on offering a public hotspot for casual visitors to your business?
When it comes to coverage, it’s important to consider the layout of the office space. Open plan spaces are easiest as there’s nothing to obstruct the signal, although you may need a number of access points to ensure even coverage over a large area. If your building is divided into smaller spaces, then brick or breeze block walls are likely to obstruct the WiFi signal far more than lighter partition walls and again, this may mean the need for more access points in order to get even signal coverage.
The same thing applies if you occupy more than one floor of a building. Metal furniture, such as cupboards and filing cabinets, can also block a signal, as can pipes – particularly water pipes. As a general rule, you should aim to have a line of sight to the access point from wherever you need to access the network and it’s a good idea to have the coverage areas of access points overlapping by around 25 or 30% so as to provide even coverage and minimise the risk of interference from other sources.
While the positioning of access points is important, you can also boost the signal by adding high-gain antennas or directional antennas in order to focus the signal in a particular direction. The orientation of any external antennas matters too. Ideally, they should point vertically in order to achieve the most effective signal spread. Furthermore, if you have a number of buildings in a relatively small area – a factory or warehouse site for example – then you can get wireless bridges that work outdoors and are able to transmit a signal between them.
Since you will no doubt be using your business WiFi to connect to the internet as well as your in-house systems, you need to beware of potential bottlenecks. If your internet connection is slower than your WiFi, for example, it can lead to frustration. You need to make sure that the entire network can handle high speeds and that you perhaps have a leased line or similar to deliver fast internet access.
For businesses such as retail outlets, pubs or restaurants, offering a public WiFi internet access as part of your network can help increase footfall and encourage people to stay for longer. but it’s important to keep any public access separate from your business network in order to mitigate opportunites for data theft and hacking. Business routers often offer multiple service set identifiers (SSIDs) so you can set up a separate public network. You can even opt to hide the SSID of your private network so that people who don’t have the details can’t connect. In any event, you should have WPA2 security – an encryption service-enabled on your private network in order to encrypt the traffic.
Many business WiFi providers offer specialised equipment for public networks. These allow you to have what is known as a ‘captive portal’ where you can get users to agree to terms of service before being allowed to get online. This will usually mean you need a separate set of hardware for public access. This should also allow you to impose a content filter so that you can control what people are able to access.
You may also want to provide guest access to your private network – for contractors or temporary staff for example. Again, you need to make sure you have appropriate security measures in place to protect your sensitive information.
We’ve already touched on security in talking about public hotspots, but whether your business is large or small, your WiFi needs to be kept secure through the use of WPA2 security which offers the highest level of protection. For it to be at its most effective, it needs to have a strong password enabled – ideally 14 characters or more that avoids including words associated with your company. While this may seem like a chore, you will only need to enter it the first time you connect a device and if you’re particularly worried about unauthorised access, you can choose to hide the router’s SSID.
You also need to implement a firewall. Most business-focussed WiFi routers will have a built-in hardware firewall. However, for larger networks you may choose to supplement this with a separate one. These can be bought off-the-shelf or alternatively, you can convert an old PC.
Once your network is up and running, you need to maintain it to keep it in peak condition. Many service providers and network suppliers now offer businesses a form of centralised management software that allows you to see what’s connected to the network and monitor its traffic. A management console will also allow you to control things like wireless bands, SSIDs and passwords, all in an easy-to-use format that can be used by non-experts.
A further option is to use network analysis software. This will allow you to spot potential sources of interference, by seeing which channels are in use by nearby offices as well as help to identify traffic bottlenecks. If you don’t have the in-house technical expertise to do this, your service provider should be able to help.