Tech Tips: Getting the most from your Wi-Fi

WI-FI icons with buildings

If you rely on using laptop computers and mobile devices in your office, you must have a rock-solid wireless network that will keep you connected from corridor to desk. If your wireless network has ever cut out or slowed to a crawl while you’re tending to a client, you should take another look at it.

A mixture of the latest wireless networking standard and some sneaky configuration tricks will ensure that you have excellent coverage everywhere.

WELCOMING WI-FI 6

Wi-Fi is the wireless communications technology that allows devices to talk to each other, no matter where they are in your office. This tech has been with us since 1999, when 802.11b, the first version, hit the market. Since then, we’ve seen a variety of new standards: 802.11a/g, 802.11n and 802.11ac. Non-tech enthusiasts have better things to do than keep track of these codes, which is why the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA), the non-profit organization that governs these standards, cut through the Gordian knot with a new standard.

Tech industry insiders will know the latest Wi-Fi standard as 802.11ax, but the WFA created a simpler name for consumers to use: Wi-Fi 6. The WFA also is retroactively imposing the numbering system on older versions of Wi-Fi and is working with computer manufacturers to build symbols for each of these network types directly into their software. This means your computer will tell you what class of Wi-Fi network you are connecting to.

Wi-Fi 6 promises speeds of up to 40% faster than its predecessor for a single client device and up to four times the speed of its predecessor in dense environments, thanks to new technology that allows Wi-Fi 6 to talk to lots of devices efficiently. It also will use less power, thus extending the battery life of mobile devices.

The sad part? You won’t get equipment with the official Wi-Fi 6 Certified label until later this year at the earliest and possibly next. So, if you plan to upgrade your technology, waiting for Wi-Fi 6 would be smart. These standards refresh approximately every five years (the previous standard was introduced in 2013), so a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade will put your office on the cutting edge for at least half a decade.

In the meantime, the hacks outlined below will help make the wireless network in your office run smoothly:

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Your wireless access point is the central hub of your Wi-Fi network. Its sphere of coverage is exactly that – a sphere. The access point should be in the centre of your office so it covers as much of your workspace as possible; don’t jam your hub into a corner from which it covers half your office and half the street outside. Avoid positioning your hub on thick surfaces such as concrete pillars, because that will distort the signal. A ceiling-mounted access point is ideal.

EXTERNAL ANTENNAS

What if your office isn’t in a regular shape? Firms with corridors or long, narrow offices can use an external antenna, which most modern access points can plug into. External antennas come in two formats: omnidirectional, which strengthens the signal all around; and directional, which focuses in one direction.

EXTEND YOUR NETWORK

If your office is especially large or has lots of nooks and crannies, you can use a repeater or an extender to boost the coverage of your network. Think of these as satellite access points – using the same name as your main wireless network – that act as representatives for your main access point. You connect to them and they relay your communications back to the central hub.

A repeater connects to your Wi-Fi network wirelessly, just as a mobile device would, then boosts that signal to allow other devices to connect to the repeater from farther away. This carries potential bandwidth problems because this device halves the throughput between it and the main access point.

An extender is better. It connects to your Wi-Fi access point via a hardwired connection, creating a stronger, higher-bandwidth link. Many extenders support power-line networking, which uses your electrical network as a wired connection. You can plug them straight into the wall – no cables needed.

MAKE A MESH OF IT

For financial advisors with even larger, more complex offices, an alternative to extenders and repeaters is a Wi-Fi mesh. This does away with the hub-and-spoke configuration of an access point altogether. Instead, the mesh replaces typical configurations with a collection of network transceivers dotted around your office that talk to each other, thus providing faster, more reliable connections.

UPDATE SOFTWARE AND FIRMWARE

Ensure that the software on your wireless access point is up to date, typically by visiting the vendor’s site, then manually downloading and installing new drivers. You then can take advantage of the latest gains in performance and also receive security updates.

This is important, as new security bugs regularly surface. In 2017, a researcher discovered KRACK, a flaw in the WPA2 authentication protocol that put most Wi-Fi devices at risk of attack. The same researcher discovered another flaw in April, this time in the WPA3 authentication protocol, which is WPA2’s successor. Patching these flaws is crucial, especially in a business such a financial advisory practice, which deals with sensitive client data.

SEGMENT YOUR NETWORK

One of the best ways to optimize your Wi-Fi network is not use it. This advice isn’t as paradoxical as it may seem. Wireless networks excel at connecting mobile devices, but many of the devices in your office are not mobile. Use power lines or Ethernet cable to connect devices that rarely move, such as desktop computers, connected projectors and smart-TVs. Taking these devices off your Wi-Fi network will free up valuable bandwidth for the mobile devices that really need to be connected to the network.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT CHANNEL

Wi-Fi access points use different radio channels. Just like a CB radio, each channel has different levels of activity. Choose a channel that is clearest for your work environment. You can use a tool such as Wifi Analyzer (wifianalyzer.info) for Android or WiFi Explorer (adriangranados.com) for Mac to turn your phone, tablet or laptop into a portable Wi-Fi channel scanner.

Each step you take to improve the Wi-Fi network in your office will improve your experience. At one end is a simple channel audit and an access point repositioning. At the other end is a sophisticated mesh network that will flood your entire workspace with radio. The only limiting factor is your budget.

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