The “Wireless Workplace”

Mobile devices are really changing everything – how we communicate, where we work, how readily we can find information, and more. The majority of people in the US own between 3 and 4 mobile electronic devices, and most of these devices don’t even have the option to use a network cable. It’s just easier not to have to plug in somewhere. What if you could free your employees to use a wireless connection as their main form of connectivity even while they are at work, while still preserving your needed network performance and security?

This is a very real possibility today. The concept is enticing on several fronts. First and most importantly, it gives your employees a lot of flexibility. Most employees are already using mobile devices, including laptops, tablets, smartphones and more. So why have them tethered to a specific desk? With a robust wireless workplace design in place, your employees can work anywhere and meet with anyone literally anywhere. Finally, if the office needs to be re-arranged, you don’t have to pay contractors to run new cables and rewire each desk!

Benefits of Working Wirelessly

This can lead to significant cost savings. For example, American Fidelity Assurance moved to mobile-first network design and saved over $700,000. California State University found that only half of their wired ports were being used across their 23 campuses and moved toward a design that emphasized wireless connectivity and saved $30 million on their network refresh.

Downsides of Working Wirelessly

People tend to like their privacy. While the wireless geek in me likes the idea of fine tuning an RF fabric to the point where wires are no longer a necessity, don’t go overboard on the “open office floor plan.” Remember that sound carries, background noise can really lower the perceived professionalism on a conference call, and everyone likes to have a place they can call their own.Just because you move to an all wireless network doesn’t mean that it’s a great idea to buy a bunch of beanbags and call it a day.

Technology Advances

An all wireless office  is possible through recent wireless advances like 802.11AC, which brings gigabit speeds to wireless clients, and 802.11AC Wave Two, which introduced MU-MIMO and made single stream transmissions more efficient. However, it’s not enough to simply put up several new access points and call it a day. Wireless technology is resilient at the core, but proper design is still critical.

Considerations for a Wireless Workplace

If you’re interested in moving to a wireless environment, there are several things to consider.

  1. You should understand that wireless is a shared medium. Think of it like a grouping of two-way radios. If someone is holding down the transmit button, no one else can speak until the channel is free again. Only one person can transmit at a time and everyone has to wait their turn! That’s exactly how an enterprise wireless system works behind the scenes. The more clients you have connected to a single access point, the less broadcast time they each will get. For that reason, it’s better to design for capacity rather than raw coverage and it’s important to have a good idea of where people will congregate.
  1. Wireless networks operate in two unlicensed spectrums – 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz (ISM and U-NII, respectively). The great thing about unlicensed spectrums is that you don’t need to pay any license fees to use them, but that means that anyone and everyone can do the same. Remember the first point that wireless is a shared medium? Well, chances are good is that there’s already RF noise in your office, especially in the 2.4GHz spectrum. It’s often generated by wireless security cameras, Bluetooth systems, microwaves, and neighboring wireless systems. I don’t say this to discourage you – issues like this can be designed around by making intelligent channel selections – but it’s important to have someone come in to your location and take measurements on the existing wireless noise so your channel plan can be built for your unique environment.
  1. While the access point selection is important, the wireless clients implemented are just as important. If your access points support 802.11AC, and your wireless clients support 802.11AC in both the 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz spectrums, you have a good shot at getting great transmission speeds. But if you have older wireless devices that can only support, say, 54 Mbps with the 802.11g standard, they will not transmit at gigabit speeds regardless of the capabilities of the access point. Instead, the access point itself will downshift to their slower standard so they can communicate. This will work without issue as backwards compatibility should be present at the AP, but it will slow down your overall performance. Be sure that you know what clients you will need to support in your environment and adjust as needed!
  1. Considering security is a must. Wireless security has come a long way since the days of the WEP standards, so chances are almost non-existent that a malicious outsider will be able to break directly in through your wireless network. However, if an authorized employee brings an infected laptop to the office and puts it on your corporate network you could still be in trouble. It’s important to define a company policy for BYOD (bring your own device) and set strict security parameters, not just around the employee but around the device they are using on your network as well. This is fully possible with a network access control platform like Aruba’s ClearPass or Cisco’s ISE.

To summarize, the all-wireless office is a very real possibility and a well-made RF fabric can be a great asset to any company, but proper design is critical. Thankfully, there are many tools available to ensure that your transition to a wireless workplace environment is painless and smooth. I hope that this article has given you a few things to consider as a starting point.

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