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How Smart Wi-Fi Improves Wireless Network Performance

By Paul Rubens, CIO
January 02, 2013 01:16 PM ET

CIO - You're sitting in a conference room in your corporate headquarters, trying to download a file to your smartphone. There's a strong Wi-Fi signal, but the download that's been crawling along has finally ground to a halt.

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This kind of poor Wi-Fi experience is all too common, and thanks to BYOD programs that allow employees to connect their mobile devices to their corporate networks, things are likely to get worse.

Here's why: Wi-Fi is a shared medium, which means that only one person (or device) can use it at any given time--everyone else has to wait. So no matter how strongly your device detects a Wi-Fi signal, the more devices that are using it, the slower it will be for everyone.

[ Related: How to Set Up a Business-Grade Wi-Fi Network ]

But that's not the only reason. A workplace is a busy, changing environment, and as people move through it, the Wi-Fi signal can be blocked by obstacles. There's also likely to be plenty of interference from other Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth devices as well as a constant background of radio chatter as tablets, laptops, smartphones and other Wi-Fi devices probe for available networks to connect to, even when they are not in use.

The result of all this is dropped packets, which have to be rebroadcast--increasing overall congestion. And since many mobile devices have relatively poor Wi-Fi antennas they will often negotiate a relatively slow data rate with the access point they are connected to try to minimize packet loss.

More Bandwidth, More Problems

Throwing more bandwidth at the problem won't make the wireless network run more quickly because lack of bandwidth is not the root cause of the poor network performance. And adding access points can actually make matters worse: they can cause even more interference and confuse Wi-Fi devices because they don't know which one to connect to.

One solution is to use smart Wi-Fi equipment--access points and other networking hardware that uses specialized software or hardware to improve wireless network performance in busy environments. For example, Aruba Networks' software-based Adaptive Radio Management technology automatically assigns channel and power settings for all access points on a network and carries out channel load-balancing to evenly distribute clients across available channels in a given area to avoid overloading a single channel or access point.

[ Related: 10 Reasons Your Wi-Fi Speed Stinks (and What You Can Do About It) ]

A more sophisticated hardware and software-based Wi-Fi solution has been pioneered by Ruckus Wireless, a small but rapidly growing WLAN equipment vendor. Ruckus' smart Wi-Fi technology is designed to enable its ZoneFlex range of access points to beam a highly directional Wi-Fi signal from its access points to the client devices that want to connect with it, thus reducing interference and congestion.

David Callisch, Ruckus' vice president of corporate marketing, explains: "Imagine you and I are in a big conference room. You shout at me but I can't hear you over the other conversations. But if we had a long tube between us you could talk down the tube and I would be able to put my ear to it and hear you better."

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