There are many reasons you would need to plan a large area WiFi solution. More and more of today’s technology is becoming WiFi dependant and offers consumers advanced technical capabilities while simultaneously requiring proper wired or wireless network connectivity which can be hard to produce without accurate knowledge and execution. Planning to cover a large area with WiFi starts with understanding the reasons why you need WiFi and where you need it most. Figuring out your exact needs will help narrow down the type of equipment you’ll need and give you a pretty accurate idea of the costs of such a project.
In a perfect world, you would be able to deploy a single piece of long range WiFi hotspot equipment and cover acres or miles of land with solid WiFi connectivity. However we don’t live in a perfect world and such equipment just simply does not exist. Distributing WiFi across a large outdoor area or even a large house or apartment requires multiple pieces of equipment, cabling and the proper know how to get things done.
Things To Avoid When Covering A Large Area With WiFI
There are a few thing you will want to avoid immediately when planning a large area WiFi solution. While these solutions may work in certain situations if the proper expectations are set and the performance limitations are understood and viable, we would recommend avoiding them altogether.
Double NAT Networks – A double NAT (network address translation) is when you connect one router behind another router. For example, connecting your TP-Link router behind the router provided by your internet service provider. While this approach will allow you to connect to the internet, you are technically creating a whole new network rather than extending an existing one. You may also run into issues when playing games online, connecting to a VPN, opening certain ports or other advanced networking configuration. Even if you broadcast the same network name and password across both routers, you will still be broadcasting two seperate networks and will not be able to communicate with other devices connected to the same network. Sorry, MacGyver, this isn’t the way to cover a large area with WiFi.
Mesh WiFi Networks – A mesh network is a method of deploying multiple access points within a single network without having to run ethernet cable to each access point. Data is essentially relayed from one access point to another wirelessly. This type of solution is growing in popularity in the residential market and in some cases can be the perfect solution depending on the required coverage area and the way that WiFi will be used within that area. The major drawback of deploying a mesh WiFi network is the loss of speed you will experience. Sometimes this speed loss can be up to 50% with every hop within the mesh network. In some cases this is not a big deal but if you need to support activities that require high speed internet access like online gaming or watching videos then you may not get the network performance you are looking for.
Wireless Extenders/Repeaters – Wireless extenders or repeaters essentially take the worst qualities of double nat and mesh WiFi networks and combine them into one terrible solution. Similar to a double nat network, a WiFi extender or repeater essentially creates a whole new network using your existing wireless network rather than actually extending your existing one. Wireless extenders are actually even worse than mesh WiFi networks because mesh WiFi networks can relay signals from every access point connected to the mesh network while wireless extenders rely on a central antenna.
Both double natting and mesh WiFi networks are usually only implemented in residential environments due to their affordable price points and lack of advanced networking capabilities. Honestly, the residential market is where these types of solutions belong and should almost never be implemented in any type of commercial environment.
Tips For Planning a Large Area WiFi Solution:
1. Create a proper cabling plan for all required network equipment
Enterprise grade WiFi equipment is already very expensive but a large area WiFi solution can double or triple in cost if new cabling needs to be run. Whether indoors or outdoors there can be unique challenges that can present themselves when installing ethernet cabling. These challenges can includes cutting through walls, drilling, trenching and more. Cable installation can be a time consuming process and depending on the environment it can be disturbing to your employees or residents both from a noise and convenience perspective. It’s always recommended to install ethernet cabling early in the construction or move-in process for the most cost effective large area WiFi installation.
It’s even recommended to plan for the future and run ethernet cable to areas where you may not need wireless coverage immediately but potentially may need later. Many hotels preemptively run ethernet cables in to every unit even if they don’t plan to install per-unit access points. Many large offices think the same way and often run not one but two ethernet cables to every individual workstation. One cable will be used for VoIP communication while the second can be used for hardline connectivity if the need ever arises.
Running ethernet cable can be a difficult and expensive process if needed to be done in a built out environment. Often times people or companies that are trying to cover a large area with WiFi may need to make some sacrifices when it comes to cabling in order to meet certain aesthetic or financial requirements. Preparing early can help reduce the amount of sacrifices you have to make and can enable you to achieve the results you want.
Maybe your large area WiFi solution requires more than just ethernet cable. In some situations, long outdoor cable runs may exceed the distances that can be supported by cat5 or cat6 cable (100 meters or roughly 328 feet). Running ethernet cable beyond those distances will open up the door for signal attenuation, dropped packets and an overall negative internet experience. Sometimes you may need to run fiber optical cable as it does not have the same distance limitations as ethernet and can transmit high speeds even at distances of 1000 meters. Be aware that running fiber optical cable comes with its own installation requirements and the same WiFi service providers that you hire to install ethernet cable may not have the equipment or expertise needed to run fiber. There are some situations that may make running cable impossible and instead you may elect to use wireless point to point bridges to transmit signal. We’ll cover this in a later tip.
2. Choose the right equipment for your large area wireless installation
This point cannot be stressed enough. If you’re planning to cover a large area with WiFi then it does not make sense to use consumer grade wireless access points that you buy at big name retailers. These access points will not deliver the coverage strength, client support or configuration flexibility that you will require for your large area WiFi solution. Enterprise grade wireless access points can cover a larger area, support more devices and offer so much more in terms of configuration. Sure, the cost is higher than lower end counterparts but the value is undeniable.
Access points are not your only equipment requirements. You will have to consider switches, firewalls, network interface controllers, wireless bridges and so much more. This is where professional wireless installation companies like Made By WiFi shine. The network equipment that you need for your large area WiFi solution also needs to work together seamlessly with each other. It’s important to make sure that the network equipment that you choose does not creation limitations for you from a speed or usability standpoint. If you have an internet connection faster than 100mbps then you should opt to purchase equipment that has 10/100/1000 ethernet ports to support the high speed throughput. If you are running fiber optic cable instead of ethernet then you should consider purchasing equipment with SFP ports to accept the fiber optic cable.
Some routers have IP limitations that will only allow you to support a certain amount of devices. This may or may not be an issue depending on your environment and device support needs but typically when a single system is used to cover a large area with WiFi, there is usually an expectation to support several hundred or even thousands of devices simultaneously.
3. Use a unified management system for your large area WiFi solution
Typically when dealing with enterprise grade WiFi equipment there really isn’t an option to not use a unified management system. These usually come in the form of physical or cloud controllers. Current trends are cloud focused and more and more enterprise grade network equipment manufacturers like Ruckus, Aerohive and Ubiquiti are pushing their cloud platform and phasing out on-site controllers. This is actually a good thing as performance is typically the same but cloud controllers offer better analytics and centralized control of different locations. Cloud controllers are easier to update without going on-site and sometimes have phone apps that make your management even easier. Cloud controllers are so much more reliable than on-site controllers too. The chances of a cloud controller not being available for access are slim to none while if an on-site controller fails then you will need to replace it or plan for high availability which also means a higher initial cost.
Some network equipment manufacturers even offer switches such as Ruckus’ ICX series and Aerohive’s SR series. These switches can be managed using the same interface as the access points which creates some convenience in terms of management but may not offer the flexibility or reliability you may need in your large area WiFi solution. If you opt to use equipment from different manufacturers we recommend that you note all your access credentials for easy access or choose to partner with a managed WiFi provider and allow them to manage your network for you.
4. Position your equipment properly and in ideal locations
Enterprise grade access points are perfect when planning to cover a large area with WiFi but they need to be placed in proper locations in order to distribute the wireless signal according to your needs. (Learn more about business grade network setup in our blog post – tips for setting up a business grade WiFi network) The most accurate way to accomplish this is to hire a company to perform an active site survey at your location. The site survey takes into account your preferred wireless access points and recommends the best placement for signal propagation as well as the amount of access points you’ll need in order to cover your large area with solid WiFi. It would be recommended to conduct the site survey first before any of these steps as the findings of the survey will help you determine a proper cabling plan, bill of materials and budget.
Beyond access point placement you will need to position your other equipment as well. Typically core equipment will be kept near your internet demarcation point. Whether this is a server room, IT closet or another area, it’s important that the equipment you keep there is kept cool, dust free, and generally secure to prevent unauthorized access. Depending on the distance covered by your large area WiFi solution, you may need to install IDF switches at strategic locations to extend the distances you can run ethernet cable. The IDF switches will need a similar level of attention as the core equipment. Where ever they are placed will need to be well ventilated, cool, generally dust free and secure from unauthorized access.
5. Configure your equipment to best perform in your environment
The type of configurations you apply to your equipment will vary based on the type of environment you want to support. If you’re a large hotel with dozens of floors, hundreds of rooms and countless access points, you may want to reduce signal cell size so that guest devices can seamlessly roam across the property without getting stuck to one specific access point. Alternately if you are covering a large outdoor area and have a limited budget for access points or perhaps have limitations that prevent you from installing additional access points then you should increase signal cell size to make sure that each access point can cover as much distance as possible.
It may be hard to determine the best configurations if you choose do take the project on by yourself. We recommend checking our last blog post about tips for WiFi configuration or better yet, contacting a professional WiFi installation company to consult on your project. We talk more about this topic in our blog post about wireless access point installation best practices.
6. Use point to point bridges to share an internet connection between two or more areas
Point to point wireless bridges offer the easiest way to extend an internet network across two locations. Wireless bridges do not offer WiFi connectivity but they do enable you to extend your internet signal and then redistribute without having to invest in ethernet or fiber optic cabling and the labor required to run and hide the cable. With proper line of sight, wireless bridges can transmit signals for over 10 miles with little to no impact on latency.
Wireless bridges are typically installed on the outside of structures and usually require one ethernet cable that can deliver power as well. Wireless bridges are weather-proof and do not require additional casings to protect them from the elements. As long as line of sight is not interrupted then you will be able to share your internet connection across a large area.
Covering a large area with WiFi can be daunting without the proper knowledge and hopefully this blog has left you prepared with the proper steps to get the job done. Bad WiFi is easily accomplished but good WiFi requires a proper plan and the right expertise. If you need additional help setting up or configuring your WiFi system then check out our blog or contact our wireless specialists for a free consultation.