Things change. For example, leaves fall in autumn, and snow falls in winter. You get the idea.
Network environments change, too. Yet, unlike the seasons, we can't see network changes unaided. We need tools to measure signal strength and speed.
Acclimation also plays a role. If we're used to slow speeds, we may not know that a faster connection is possible. But when the local Starbucks connection "Goes Google," we notice the difference. New equipment, configurations, and connections may improve speed.
Unfortunately, I've encountered several slow Wi-Fi networks at schools, businesses, and non-profit organizations in the past month. This needs to change. If you haven't recently paid attention to your network performance, the following actions might help.
1. Switch Wi-Fi to an uncrowded channel
If you're an IT pro, you did a Wi-Fi site survey before you deployed your access points. But the business next door might have added an access point. Or, as I once encountered at a tech company, an employee might have deployed an access point — or two, or three, or more. Conduct a Wi-Fi site survey at least once a year.
Your site survey doesn't have to be an expensive one. The low-cost way to do this survey requires just an Android device and an app: Wifi Analyzer (Figure A). Any Android device that supports 802.11ac should work. The app shows activity on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks. Sketch a map of your site, walk around, and write down which channels are least crowded.
For a budget Wi-Fi site survey, use Wifi Analyzer to detect channels used by nearby networks.
Login to your Wi-Fi access point to change your network to an uncrowded channel. Remember, the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz channels send signals on different frequencies. Select settings to minimize conflicts with nearby networks.
2. Switch to 802.11ac devices
Buy devices with 802.11ac support. When you replace a Wi-Fi access point, buy an 802.11ac device. When you purchase a laptop, tablet, or phone, buy a device with 802.11ac support. Smartphones such as the Nexus 6, Galaxy Note 4, and iPhone 6/6 Plus include 802.11ac chips, as do several Chromebooks (such as the Toshiba Chromebook 2, Samsung Chromebook 2, and recent HP Chromebooks).
3. Connect to the 5 GHz channel
Connect your devices to your Wi-Fi network's 5 GHz 802.11ac channel where possible. This provides the potential for greater bandwidth and may allow your device to benefit from "beamforming." Instead of a same strength in all directions connection, beamforming focuses the signal between your device and access point. Additionally, the 5 GHz channel tends to be less crowded. Neighboring businesses and homes are much more likely to have devices on 2.4 GHz networks (as of early 2015).
Not all devices can connect to 5 GHz networks. Chromecast devices and many Wi-Fi printers, for example, connect only to 2.4 GHz networks. In most cases, you can allow the two networks to "see" each other. This might allow a tablet connected to a 5 GHz network to print directly to a wireless printer connected to a 2.4 GHz network.
4. If necessary, constrain your guest network
Cap the bandwidth available to guests on your network, so as to ensure employee devices always have sufficient speed. Typically, you'd set the limit to be a percentage of your maximum internet connection speed. Guest networks should always be isolated from your internal network.
Make it easy for your guests to connect. Provide an "openwireless.org" network for guests to access if your ISP contract allows (read more about the initiative at openwireless.org). Require passwords to connect to employee networks (e.g., WPA2), but keep your guest network open and easy to access.
5. Identify and alleviate bottlenecks
Network speed may be constrained at many points. The ultimate constraint is the bandwidth delivered by your internet service provider: you'll never exceed that. Use SpeedTest.net or TestMy.net to verify that your internet speed approaches the speeds your provider sells you.
Other network devices may limit your speed, too. Network switches should support at least Gigabit speeds (1,000 Mbps), and cable modems should support at least DOCSIS 3.0 standards. You also might need newer network extenders, such as wireless repeaters, mesh devices, or Powerline adapters (see my earlier article "Gone Google? Optimize Wi-Fi for your small business" for details).
Be aware that settings may affect performance. Test an alternative DNS provider, such as Google's DNS servers or OpenDNS, for faster performance (see my earlier article "Resolve to resolve DNS faster"). Review your firewall settings; sometimes a slightly less restrictive setting provides noticeably faster throughput.
Review, upgrade, monitor
Conduct a Wi-Fi survey this month, unless you've completed such a survey in the past year. The signal strength and speeds might surprise you. At the very least, set your purchasing threshold higher: don't buy network devices built for older standards. What once was considered fast might now be considered average — or slow.
Networks, like the seasons, change over time. Don't let four seasons pass without improvements to your network.
When your organization moved to the cloud, did you upgrade your network? What changes made your network faster? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.
Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.