5 Reasons why Free WIFI Surveys are a Waste of Time

30th Apr 2021

If you’ve ever needed a WIFI survey performed then you’ll know that finding a competent company to deliver this is like finding a needle in a haystack. Clouding your judgement is the fact that there are lots of companies out there who will offer you a FREE WiFi site survey (and we all like free especially when budgets are tight), yet many other companies will charge you for the same service. This gets you thinking 1) Why is this? And 2) is it really the same service?... so let’s explore the subject.

Starting at the start, why would you pay for something when you can get it somewhere else for free? I guess the simple answer is that, in life, goods and services obtained free-of-charge are very rarely of the same 'spec' or quality of those for which a premium has been paid. For me personally if I’m offered something of such significance for free I immediately doubt it’s value, call it a gut feeling, you’ll get this too and your gut feeling is often right. I was taught early in life that if something seems to good to be true, it's beacuse it probably is.

There is a great deal more to WiFi surveys than may be initially apparent, so here is a rundown of the potential pitfalls of free wireless site surveys, along with some reasons why you may want to consider investing in a comprehensive WiFi survey at the beginning of your project in order to avoid any costly or disruptive mistakes further along the road.

Ensign Note: The WiFi network is almost certainly critical to your companies productivity, so bearing in mind that cost savings at the survey and deployment phase will almost certainly result in losses elsewhere further down the line (as unscheduled downtime impacts upon employees) the question is simply, “Do I want this disruption, and what’s the financial impact of this inevitable downtime?”

Reason 1 why free WIFI Surveys are a waste of your time

Underspecified Wireless Networks - The most common call we receive is from businesses who are experiencing issues with their recently installed wireless network. It is regularly the case that a wireless network which ‘works’ is still some way off being specified correctly, having not been scrutinised, tested and specified thoroughly enough during the early stages of the project… and this often follows the infamous ’free WiFi site survey’.

Typical under-specification includes:

Electrical Power – When a competent engineer visits a site to conduct a wireless survey, one of the first factors they must address is AC power. Without the minimum amount of ‘juice’ (15.4 watts for the latest WiFi-6 per wireless Access Point) the network will under-perform. This can be baffling to non-techies and is often missed in quick-fire free surveys, as radios will appear to be working, but WiFi coverage will fall significantly short. Limited coverage means a poor end-user WiFi experience and, depending on your industry, bad reviews, complaints, or simply a reduction in staff productivity. 

Radio Output Power - The second power consideration often overlooked in a free survey is the output of the Access Points; expressed more accurately as ‘cell size’. Excessively powering Access Points to deliver WiFi coverage is a common cost-saving tactic used by non-professionals. Using the maximum power ratio (dBm) per Access Point will mean that fewer APs can be deployed, but is a risky deployment tactic:

With Access Points operating at full power, there is no resilience or fail-over built into the design. This means that if an Access Point fails the adjacent ones can’t adjust their power up (as they are already at max power) to cover any WiFi coverage holes.
 Also, as WiFi is a shared medium, unlike a data cable, the larger the cell size the more users are connected to the Access Point, sharing the available bandwidth amongst more users, so for a great user experience rather than the comments “This WiFi is rubbish (or worse!)”, designing smaller radio cells is crucial

    Reason 2 why free WIFI Surveys are a waste of your time

    2

    Passive and Active WiFi Surveying – it is likely that a free WiFi site survey will rely on what is known as ‘passive’ WiFi surveying. This involves an engineer testing a one-way signal from the Access Point to their device. This is quicker to undertake, however in this scenario the survey will only identify signal strength from the AP without any data specific to the amount of achievable throughput. (It’s basically just testing it can receive low bandwidth beacons from the Access Point)

    Understanding the real levels of throughput (as is part of an ‘active’ survey) will be essential once the wireless network is in operation, as failure to provide adequate throughput will result in drastic underperformance and, likely, a barrage of user complaints. 

    Reason 3 why free WIFI Surveys are a waste of your time

    Access Point Quantity – the number of WiFi Access Points required to deliver an optimum wireless experience will vary from site-to-site and from business-to-business. There are many variables to consider, many of which will not be picked-up during a free WiFi survey, and this is simply because a free survey cannot allocate the necessary time needed for a comprehensive survey, hence why they’re free. 

    A comprehensive wireless survey will examine building materials, sources of RF interference and Access Point positioning, as well as adding the usage requirements as one of the many factors which dictate a successful deployment. Ensuring you receive the correct quantity of wireless Access Points the first time around is crucial, as adding extra hardware post installation can transform a financially attractive WiFi solution into a pretty ugly one very quickly. For the cost-conscious business this is therefore a primary concern.

    Reason 4 why free WIFI Surveys are a waste of your time

    US President Jefferson

    Incorrect Survey Access Point – The 3rd president of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the 4th July 1776 declaration of independence that “all men are created equal”… well 240 years later we’d like to say that all Wireless Surveys and Wireless Access Points are created equal, but we can’t say this as they’re simply not, thus insufficient specification of your wireless project before site surveying will almost certainly result in either an underperforming network or an over-delivery of hardware at your expense. 

    Understanding what it is that you and your business are hoping to achieve from your WiFi project is tantamount to an effective RF site survey. A competent WiFi survey specialist will present you with a pre-site survey document covering the granular detail of your specifications (i.e. expected usage, number of users, data flows etc.) which will then be used to collate and recommend the very best Access Points with which to survey. This ensures that the results of your survey are in alignment with what you can expect post installation. 

    Although rare, it can sometimes be the case that a client will approach Ensign with two possible Access Point specifications – this is often where wireless vendors have not been defined; a choice between Aruba HPE or Ruckus Wireless for example. In this scenario, our engineers can RF survey with both Access Points at the same time on a single band and provide you with the comparable results. 

    Reason 5 why free WIFI Surveys are a waste of your time

    3

    Design Guide – In our experience, what does not necessarily get communicated clearly enough to businesses and organisations seeking WiFi surveys, is what exactly is provided as part of a 'paid' service and, more importantly, what isn’t included in a free WiFi survey.  

    Without a robust project specification, there can be no explicit design guide for the planned wireless network. Building a wireless network should be approached in just the same way as building a car, or house, or pretty much anything else you can think of. If we don’t specify that the car needs to be able to float or change colour at night before the 'build', then the likelihood is that the final design will fall short of client expectations. Floating cars that change colour at night could be all the rage in the next 25 years, who knows 😊  

    One of the first steps a competent WiFi survey specialist will take when undertaking a WiFi survey is to liaise with the client and understand exactly what the use case is, what the resilience requirements are, what applications will be used, what specific areas need coverage (which don’t require coverage), what devices are expected to connect to the WiFi and what is the expected density of users.

    This collaborative approach ensures that the expectations are set at the beginning, rather than after deployment of the solution, when it is too late.

    Summary

    We know when a red flag looks us in the face, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and a WiFi survey for free carries the pitfalls you’d expect.

    A comprehensive onsite WiFi survey will give you an engineer (or team) at your premises who’ll provide an in-depth and comprehensive survey report and design guide, which is handed over to you to keep. Your report will provide details of how many Access Points you need, how and where to mount them, with recommendations for copper and fibre cabling, plus photographs to aid the installation. With this detailed blueprint you are free to either continue the project with your surveyor, or keep the document for use with a third party (although, of course, you’re back to square one of finding those needles in the haystack).

    Warning signs of free WiFi Surveys

    Red Flag

    Hopefully the above information will have given you the insight you might need when choosing a wireless solutions provider to conduct an onsite WiFi survey. However, here are a handful of additional things you should look out for when talking to free survey providers. 

    Structured Cabling – are they proposing to look at the cabling aspects of your project? This may not seem relevant for a WiFi survey, but wireless Access Points will require a physical cable connection. Understanding any limitations to cable routing is vital to the finalised position of the Access Points – a survey may well identify the optimum position for coverage, yet if a cabling route cannot be found then this information is redundant.

    This, as well as defining the distances to your cabinet will dictate some of the costing elements of your project – if your cabinet is too far away, and out of maximum cable reach (90 metres), a second cabinet will need to be deployed. 

    Survey, design and installation of Access Points are only parts of the whole project and a lack of due diligence with regards to structured cabling can lead to unwanted expense post installation. 

    Survey Snapshots – rather than completing a full site survey, which should involve an engineer taking a full RF map of your proposed coverage area, some free survey providers will reduce time-on-site (and thus their costs) by taking a partial RF snapshot and then replicating this to produce a ‘full’ design. 

    This method is fraught with pitfalls to the ultimate success of your project – without a detailed understanding of the entire site, and the varying areas of RF interference, materials, moving objects and more, you may well end up with a WiFi solution which looks great on paper (lots of nice green areas on the survey heatmap) but fails to deliver in reality. 

    Wireless Credentials – the easiest to ‘fake’, sadly, unscrupulous outfits will claim to be ‘experts’ in all aspects of RF and, in the age of the Internet, a half-decent website can be enough to appear credible. Take a look at their client case studies or check out their employees on LinkedIn - these are great ways to alleviate any concerns over the type and quality of your WiFi survey or indeed, any other wireless work you may be planning.  

    Final note, and we know you know this too “It’s free for a reason”

    I honestly can’t remember many occasions in my own life where the ‘free’ version of something hasn’t either been sub-standard, had a hidden cost associated to it, or was just a gateway to a better, paid version. If your business WiFi is important to you, our advice would be to ensure that you get it right first time – it saves a lot of disruption and unwanted costs later (or sooner) down the line.