What to do when the Wi-Fi is woefully inadequate

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Small firms across the country often try to get by on a standard mix of Wi-Fi and wired connections, but there are a number of situations in which this setup just falls short. Power outages, square footage that’s just a bit too large, or simply personal preferences are everyday realities that call for a different option.

Last year I talked about networking routers, and gave a brief overview on new 802.11ac tri-band routers and the advantages they bring in both speed and multiple user support. A common approach to covering a wide area with Wi-Fi is to use a powerful router, and in areas where the signal may be weakened due to distance and/or metallic items in the walls such as ducts or studs, one or more access points — those being satellite routers, which can broadcast and receive Wi-Fi signals. Access points are an excellent way to extend a network, and my network has two: a Neatgear Nighthawk router that’s configured as an access point in my home office, and a Cisco commercial access point in the center of the house. My household has a fairly extensive HVAC ducting in the ceilings and some of the walls, making the signal rather weak upstairs, so there’s a Neatgear Range Extender in one of the bedrooms that receives the Wi-Fi from downstairs and boosts the signal. We also have more than a dozen hardwired Ethernet drops in various rooms.

But Wi-Fi is rapidly replacing wired Ethernet as Wi-Fi speeds climb and Wi-Fi security improves. Also fueling this rapid adoption is the proliferation of wireless devices, such as laptops and tablets, which don’t have an Ethernet port but do have Wi-Fi built in. Currently, however, wired Ethernet is still faster, and since my house is wired with Cat 6 cable, I don’t see it completely replacing Ethernet — at least for me — for some time, even though the latest printers I’ve installed in my office are all connected via Wi-Fi.

There is another approach to Wi-Fi networking that’s gaining increasing popularity, and that’s mesh networking. A mesh network has one router that’s connected with an Ethernet cable to the network, either at the gateway, such as at a cable modem, or at a switch. Scattered around the area where Wi-Fi is needed are satellites that pick up Wi-Fi from the router or other satellites and rebroadcast the signal. Think of it as similar to a wired network with switches and drops, where the switches are wirelessly connected to each other. The topology can be visualized as a set of overlapping circles, like an elaborate Venn diagram, where each circle covers an area of strong signal strength and the overlaps are where the satellites are located.

Mesh networks have one very obvious advantage over a router and access point network configuration. With an access point, the device must be hardwired into an Ethernet connection, either at a network switch or a network drop/wall jack. With a mesh network, you just place the mesh satellites where ever you notice a signal drop off, plug it into an AC outlet, and press a button on the satellite to connect it to the network. Mesh networks are very easy to set up, and in general, work very nicely in many locations.

An innovative approach to a common problem

Lots of vendors currently offer mesh networks including D-Link, Linksys, tp-Link, and Neatgear to name just a few. Most of these are tri-band 802.11ac, so you get good throughput and decent device support, and many are equally as useful in a home or small business setting. And pretty much all of them let you expand coverage simply by adding additional satellites. I haven’t had a chance to test it yet, but one of the more interesting approaches to mesh networking is Netgear’s Orbi Pro, which is specifically targeted towards businesses. Orbi Pro consists of a router and one or more satellite expanders. The basic kit includes one of each and sells for about $500, with additional satellites priced at about $270. The basic system provides coverage of about 5,000 square feet, and the additional satellite expands this by about another 2,500. You can add more satellites to gain coverage of up to 10,000 square feet.

Orbi Pro is a bit different from most other home-oriented mesh networks. One of the more important features is that it provides a dedicated high-speed wireless backbone between each module. Neatgear calls this FastLane 3, and it maximizes Wi-Fi speed over the entire mesh by not using part of the standard tri-band support to connect the satellites, which allows each satellite to offer the same level of speed and device support.

Secondly, the administrative network support is different, providing three separate predefined networks within the structure. These networks include an administrator Network, designed to provide access to critical infrastructure such as private servers, VoIP systems, or computers that contain sensitive data. Most of your employees will have this level of access on their dedicated business devices. The second embedded network is for employees who bring their own devices, and does not permit administrator level access to privileged servers and network resources. Finally, there’s a Guest Access Network, which is completely isolated from the other two networks. It’s designed to be used by visitors to your offices. These three levels are controlled and administered by an application that Neatgear states is very easy to use.

Orbi Pro is further enhanced by offering Ethernet ports on both the router and each satellite — four on the router and three on each satellite — allowing you to plug in network devices that may not have Wi-Fi capabilities, or which simply work better on a wired network.

I’m expecting an Orbi Pro system to test in the near future. I’m thinking of configuring it as a parallel network to the server-based gateway/router network I have now. If I locate the Orbi Pro router in the garage next to the cable modem, plug each device into an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) and use a UPS at each satellite location, I can transfer to the parallel network simply by moving the output of the cable modem to the Orbi Pro router rather than letting it go to the network server on my server rack. The cable modem and Orbi Pro devices have a low enough power draw that I could likely have Internet access for hours on my low-power tablets and laptops in the event of a winter power outage that lasts more than a few minutes.

I’ll let you know how it goes when I receive the units and have had the chance to test them.

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