Wi-Fi Woes: Understanding and Solving Coverage Issues with Wi-Fi Access Points

March 30, 2023
Industry Commentary

As most MSPs (and end users) have discovered, Wi-Fi coverage can be unpredictable.The biggest reason is the nature of radio frequencies (RF). Wi-Fi signals are susceptible to obstruction and interference from a variety of sources: large metallic objects (even metal embedded in walls and windows), other Wi-Fi networks, and common household appliances such as microwave ovens.

Physical objects such as walls, floors, ceilings and furniture can obstruct Wi-Fi signals and reduce coverage. Metallic objects are the worst, since they block, reflect or bend radio waves. The layout and design of a building can also affect coverage: a nice square office is relatively simple to cover, but an H-shaped space can drive even seasoned Wi-Fi experts nuts. In some situations - e.g., medical clinics with concrete walls and large X-ray machines - it may be necessary to install a wireless access point in every room to provide adequate coverage!Interference is a second major reason for coverage issues. Other Wi-Fi networks in the vicinity can also cause interference and impact coverage; this is especially true in apartment blocks, or office buildings full of small offices, each with their own Wi-Fi network blasting away at full power. The result is not unlike trying to have a conversation in a crowded bar, with 10 TVs at maximum volume for good measure.

Sometimes there is interference from unexpected sources: a common source that we've run into is the ISP modem, which may have a Wi-Fi radio operating at full power (and acting as a hotspot, unknown to the customer) which interferes with the business Wi-Fi Access Point sitting next to it.Appliances such as microwave ovens, cordless phones, and security cameras can also interfere with Wi-Fi signals. This is more prevalent in the 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi band than the 5 GHz band, but can frequently be an issue because there are quite a lot of Wi-Fi devices (e.g., IoT devices, automatic door locks) that are restricted to 2.4 GHz and will hence be impacted.

A bit of prep work is needed here. The first line of defense is a site survey: this can be as simple as a walk through the office to identify potential interference and determine the best placement of Wi-Fi Access Points. If a floor plan is available, use it!Frequently a floor plan can show up things that weren't immediately obvious during a walkthrough, such as that large concrete stairwell blocking off the Wi-Fi signal to a conference room. As part of the site survey, it is also essential to ask the customer what their coverage expectations are. If they explain that the 10,000 square foot space in back is hardly ever used, then you've probably simplified your job quite a bit and saved them some money.

The next step is to determine the number and placement of APs. A good rule of thumb is to allocate a wireless access point every 2000 square feet, and also to allocate an AP for every 10-15 employees. (Calculate it both ways and choose the larger number.) If you have an odd-shaped building, you'll probably need more APs; it is a good idea to budget for one or two more APs than you think you'll actually need (If in the end, you wind up not needing them, you can look like a hero by telling the customer that you were able to save them money!). In many cases, the number of APs is limited by the availability of network drops as well as what you think the customer is willing to spend. But use as many as you can get away with.

Finally, Wi-Fi coverage is a dynamic beast. Few customer offices remain static forever. If they roll in a new row of file cabinets, the coverage is going to take a hit. It behooves a proactive MSP to check back with the customer every couple of months or so to find out if people are having Wi-Fi issues. You may have to move a Wi-Fi Access Point or turn up signal strength to keep the employees happy.

Wi-Fi coverage can be unpredictable and requires some work to achieve; there are many factors involved. However, by taking some basic steps, such as a site survey, using enterprise-class Wi-Fi gear, and a little ongoing monitoring, it is possible to overcome this beast.

About Uplevel Systems

Uplevel Systems, as a small business IT infrastructure managed service provider, enables any of these options. Uplevel’s subscription offering is the most popular with SMBs, but some prefer Uplevel’s new equipment purchase program and use a CapEx model.