By James Pepper
Whilst we don’t see it, it’s all around us, scanning our smartphones and tablets and other technology waiting to connect us to the internet. In just a few years Wi-Fi has gone from being a technology that we use at home and in work and rarely found in public places, to today seen as an absolute necessity by many. High quality and secure Wi-Fi connectivity is now expected by device users; this doesn’t just apply in the work place and at home but when we are travelling, are in stores, offices, banks, restaurants, universities and many other public locations. Wi-Fi is now widely accepted as the future of communication technology by the UK government with the desire for connected cities.
With more connected devices, automation and robotics being used in warehouses and distribution centres all over the globe and with RFID technology now being recognised for its huge potential for efficiencies within businesses, Wi-Fi is now a critical component in the IT infrastructure and is also now one of the most commonly used technologies.
Universities in the UK have collaborated to connect up Wi-Fi networks through the Jisc Eduroam service so that students can enjoy seamless connectivity from any other participating university campus they may visit. This has also been expanded to university hospitals, whereby university employees and students can automatically join the Wi-Fi in these locations, with their personal devices being authenticated both locally and on their own campus IT systems.
The most common questions asked by customers upon being seated in a restaurant or café used to be “can we order some drinks?” or “can we see the menu?”. Nowadays, the dynamic has changed with such questions as: “do you have Wi-Fi?” or “can I have the password for the Wi-Fi?” being posed.
Wi-Fi is not without its issues
The largest amount of calls into university IT helpdesks are when new students arrive at university. They have an expectation that the Wi-Fi will provide seamless connectivity to their technology and to the internet. These students will also want to connect multiple devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and voice assistants to the Wi-Fi network which will increase the volume of calls into helpdesks.
Wi-Fi is not a new technology, in fact it dates back to 1971 when it was called the Aloha Protocol as it was used to transmit data between the islands of Hawaii. The technology suffered from multiple technical issues and was very expensive in the early days, which meant that it was never really seen as a viable alternative to wired networks.
Since 2000’s there has been a steady increase in Wi-Fi being deployed in businesses mainly to connect colleagues wirelessly to the organisations local and wide area network, enabling employees to perform administration tasks with mobility.
Wi-Fi or WLAN has undergone several iterations with improvements in security, signal strength and built-in functionality. Wi-Fi access points in the early 2000’s were used as powered network extensions whereas today they are powerful processing systems which can perform many complex tasks and provide extensive levels of data to the user such as: footfall, customer engagement, multi-channelling, signal strength focus and adaptation.
Businesses also see Wi-Fi as a significant channel in which to engage with customers as these modern Wi-Fi networks can track customer movements and activity, enabling businesses to better understand customer behaviour and engage with them through targeted offers but also to use the data to better plan business or store layouts.
The sales of Wi-Fi devices are said to be in the 10’s of billions.
So, what is the next generation of Wi-Fi? Wi-Fi has evolved significantly in the last few years, we can now segment networks to keep certain channels secure, we are able to control these networks remotely using cloud-based applications to ensure that businesses only allow access to authorised devices and that those devices can have restricted permissions and access to certain websites.
We can now increase the bandwidth allocated to certain devices and limit others giving priority to the most essential of services rather than all others having the same connection speeds. Wireless mesh networks are an iteration of Wi-Fi technology that is becoming popular. Unlike wireless access points that require wired connections, a wireless mesh infrastructure is in effect a network of routers minus the cabling between devices or nodes. It’s effectively a peer-to-peer network of radio devices which uses the mesh infrastructure to transmit and receive data over large distances. It achieves this by transmitting the data in a series of short hops between devices. These short hops not only boost the signal but pass data from each device by making decisions based on its knowledge of the mesh network, it also intelligently selects the best connection for the user automatically to optimise the quality of the connectivity.
The wireless mesh can also self-repair to a certain extent; if it loses a connection with a device (node) it simply finds another route via another node. Wireless connectivity and user experience is therefore greatly improved.
I recently put this to the test. Having suffered months of poor Wi-Fi at home (supplied by a standard ISP) and having increased demand for connected internet of things (IoT) that repeatedly required reconnecting to the Wi-Fi, I tried everything from signal boosting APs to wireless repeaters but nothing seemed to do the trick. I then installed the Netgear Orbi and immediately my connectivity problems were a thing of the past. There are several other manufacturers with similar products but this ticked all the boxes for me. With the wireless mesh installed and fully managed via a cloud-based portal or app I was able to assume full control of the Wi-Fi and allocate priorities to network traffic. The difference in connectivity experienced by the whole family was remarkable. I can therefore see businesses deriving huge benefits from using such a technology to boost productivity, efficiency, effectiveness as well as customer engagement and experience.
HaLow Wi-Fi is another development in Wi-Fi technology. HaLow provides a low power solution and operates in frequencies below 1GHz (most traditional Wi-Fi is 2GHz or more recently 5GHz), it also has a longer range than the traditional Wi-Fi systems, therefore it is ideal for connectivity to Smart devices around the home and potentially in the future wearable devices.
With all of the developments in Wi-Fi devices what can go wrong? Well – a lot. However, it’s not often the technology goes wrong. Many of the 10’s of billions of Wi-Fi devices have been installed without either understanding the specific Wi-Fi requirements, not looking at the building infrastructure or simply installed incorrectly. The issues experienced as a result of this range from poor connectivity, slow internet download and upload speeds. This can be due to a variety of reasons such as clashing with neighbouring Wi-Fi channels, poor installations, location of Wi-Fi devices, insufficient access points for the size of building or building layout, too many devices trying to connect to the same Wi-Fi, poor configuration of the network or the connected devices.
To cite an example: at Vista Retail Support we witnessed a 10-fold increase in demand for Wi-Fi consultancy services from businesses that have installed Wi-Fi themselves or via a 3rd party and who have subsequently experienced Wi-Fi issues; many of these issues were resolved with relative ease. One major retailer had simply installed a very high-quality Wi-Fi router in every store, however, it had not taken into consideration that not all of its stores had the same layout or construction and as a result 20% of the estate had such poor Wi-Fi the staff had given up trying to use some of the technology.
With businesses making such large capital investments in technology to improve business efficiency and effectiveness, the next generation of Wi-Fi is now critical to ensure these businesses achieve the intended return on investment. For IT executives it is not simply a case of procuring the latest Wi-Fi technology. The technological landscape is changing rapidly and businesses need to have a rolling programme of review which should include user requirements and security.
As a starting point, businesses should define their Wi-Fi strategy and then review what they have in place today, understand if the current model meets the business requirements for both now and in the future. The good news is that businesses may already have the most suitable technology installed; the bad news is that it may not be installed or managed correctly.