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Why Free WiFi Surveys Are a Risky Business

By Gregg Meade on 30th Jun 2017

The Pitfalls of Free WiFi Site Surveys and how to avoid them

Many wireless companies will offer free WiFi site surveys, whilst others – Ensign included - will charge for the service. Why is this?

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. 

But that would be oversimplifying – there is a great deal more to WiFi surveys than may be initially apparent. So, the following 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.

Underspecified Wireless Networks 

The most common call we receive is from businesses and organisations who are experiencing issues with their - often recently installed - wireless networks. 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. 

Some of the most common pitfalls of a free WiFi site survey, with regards to under-specification, are as follows:

Power – when our engineers visit a site to conduct a wireless survey, one of the first factors to address is AC power. Without the minimum amount of ‘juice’ (15.4 watts) per wireless access point the network will under-perform. This can be baffling to non-techies, 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. 

The second power consideration is the output of the access points - expressed more accurately as ‘cell size’. Excessively powering access points in order 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 for two reasons:

Firstly, with access points operating at full power, there is no resilience or failover built into the design. If your business WiFi is important to your productivity, cost saving at the survey and deployment phase will almost certainly result in losses elsewhere further down the line as unscheduled downtime impacts upon your staff.

Secondly, running any electrical hardware consistently at full power is never a good idea. It won’t take long for the access points to overheat, or for components to fail, leading to more business disruption and unwanted replacement costs. 

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. In this scenario, the survey will only identify signal strength from the AP without any data specific to the amount of achievable throughput. Understanding the 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. 

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. 

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 that our customers get the correct amount 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 cost-conscious businesses this will be a primary concern. 

Incorrect Survey Access Point – unlike Thomas Jefferson's oft-repeated declaration, all wireless access points aren’t created equal, 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 the expense of the customer (you!). 

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. Our pre-site survey document will cover the granular detail of your specifications (i.e. expected usage, number of users, data flows etc.) which we will then collate and recommend the very best access point with which to survey. In doing this we ensure that the results of the survey are in alignment with what can be expected post installation. 

Although rare, it can sometimes be the case that a customer 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.

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, put simply, 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 customer expectations.  

As we often have to reassure our customers, when you pay for an Ensign onsite WiFi survey, you are not only getting an engineer at your premises (possibly the same as a free survey) but you will be provided with an in-depth and comprehensive survey report and design guide, which is yours to keep. 

With this detailed blueprint you are free to either continue the project with us, or, keep the document for use with a third party (although, of course, we would not advise the latter). To see an example of our wireless survey report, feel free to contact us

Warning signs of free WiFi Surveys

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 things to 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 cab will need to be implemented. 

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 customer 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.  

It’s usually 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.
 

What Next?

For advice on designing or upgrading your WiFi network and associated systems, to the deployment of security solutions like Next Generation Firewalls and Endpoint Network Security, please contact Ensign Communications for a chat with our technical team.

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