Business wi-fi coverage: How firms can plug the gaps

Don't think in terms of desks, zones or hotspots but of blanket coverage...

Demand for wi-fi coverage on business premises is soaring thanks to tablets and smartphones. So IT needs a change of thinking on the whole approach to coverage, says Rob Bamforth.

It's no surprise that network coverage is an important concern for all users of mobile equipment. Quocirca research in 2008 showed that for businesses this concern related as much to the use of mobile phones at work and at home as to the public spaces in between.

The same research showed significant adoption of wi-fi was wireless access to LANs, with almost two-thirds of small and medium-sized businesses having some sort of wi-fi network in the office.

In many cases, this network might have been in specific areas of a given building. Some companies offer guest access in public-access areas, others provide it only to specific groups or individuals using wi-fi.

From smartphones to tablets, such as this Android-based HTC Flyer, staff are carrying more wireless devices

From smartphones to tablets, such as this Android-based HTC Flyer, staff are carrying more wireless devicesPhoto: Kent German/CNET News

Three years on, and the adoption of wi-fi appears to have soared but so too have expectations of access anywhere. Some of the growth in usage is due in part to networking and facilities costs falling, some to increased user demand as the number of devices with embedded wi-fi has grown.

Wi-fi's knock-on effect on fixed networks

The growth in wi-fi has a knock-on effect on fixed networks. At one time, it might have been the norm to provide four network ports per desk for each employee, allowing for a desktop computer, fixed phone, occasional laptop and spare capacity.

That approach is expensive to deliver right across the business premises to every workstation or desk, just from a cabling and network equipment perspective, let alone the cost per square metre of office space.

As working patterns evolve, the dedicated desk with its associated services per employee is beginning to look like an expensive luxury or just plain inflexible. Employees are more comfortable and potentially more productive with their mobile phones and mobile computers and do not need to be tied to a specific desk.

Hence the cost-effective network norm today is likely to be dropping to an average of only one port per employee, but the number of devices being carried and used by the employee is probably going to be heading upwards, especially with new form factors such as the tablet. Wi-fi will play a significant part in ensuring these growing numbers of devices can be connected.

Wi-fi coverage and the IT department

Unlike the indoor coverage of cellular networks, which requires support and devices such as femtocells from mobile carriers, wi-fi coverage is one issue that the IT department will be expected to fix by themselves.

Positioning wireless access points in meeting rooms and office spaces might seem an easy way to deliver sufficient coverage but there is an increasing problem of getting connectivity in more unusual spaces on the business premises, and this issue has been particularly exacerbated by the adoption of tablets.

Tablet users casually expect to have decent coverage everywhere, not just...