image-coat-hangersThese days the Internet is everywhere. Wireless hotspots abound at Starbuck’s, McDonald’s, and libraries. ISP’s like Cablevision, Comcast and Verizon are adding hotspots every day for their clients. Everyone I know has Wi-Fi in their house. It’s hard to go anywhere with your laptop or tablet and not have Wi-Fi access. All this access must be good right? More online access = more Candy Crush. Well…here’s the thing. All the Wi-Fi routers and access points out there are actually causing a problem—wireless congestion. You see, there is only so much Wi-Fi bandwidth to go around and the more wireless networks there are within range of you, the slower each of them will go.

Traditional wireless uses the 2.4GHz frequency band for operation. It gets divided up into 13 separate channels. The issue is those 13 channels all overlap each other. I like to think of it this way: Imagine a 13-lane super highway. A highway that wide should be able to move a lot of cars. Even if you have those slowpokes hogging the left lane, there are still 12 more lanes to move all those cars along at breakneck speeds. So what’s the rub? Well, our 13-lane Wi-Fi highway is only 4 lanes wide. That’s what 13 overlapping channels are like. So in reality, there are only 3 channels available that don’t overlap any other channel and that is where you will find all of those Wi-Fi hotspots that everyone loves. Starting to get the picture? Try this, take your laptop into a crowded office building and take a look at the number of available Wi-Fi networks. How many do you see? 10? 20? 50? However many you see remember they are all sharing 3 “lanes” worth of bandwidth.

OK, I hear all you techies out there saying “What about 5 GHz?” Yes it is true, there is a second radio frequency available for Wi-Fi networks, the 5 GHz band. It offers more channels and higher speeds. And it doesn’t share its frequency with the likes of baby monitors, cordless phones and microwaves. But, everything comes with a price. While the higher frequencies do offer faster speeds, this comes at the cost of range. Higher frequency radio signals just can’t travel as far. Higher frequencies also have more trouble getting through solid objects like walls. Anyone remember AM radio (the much lower frequency cousin to FM)? Sounded terrible right? It may have sounded bad but I was once able to listen to a Met’s game broadcast on a NY AM radio station while I was doing some work in Ohio. Lower frequency = greater distance. Even with the 23 non-overlapping channels offered by 5GHz we still have an issue with wireless congestion. There are just too many devices out there vying for a piece of the wireless highway.

Unless you’re a big company and have your own building far away from other wireless networks, then wireless congestion will affect you and your business. I don’t mean to paint a dismal picture of wireless technology, but I do think businesses need to have some realistic expectations of what they can and cannot do with a wireless network. As congested as the airwaves have become in some areas, it’s getting difficult to be fully productive while wireless. So what does all of this mean to you? The bottom line is with current Wi-Fi technology, a wireless connection is never really going to be as fast or as stable as a wired connection. In most office spaces, being 100% wireless generally will not result in a pleasant user experience. Most businesses should stick with a traditional wired network for most of their connections. Wireless is fine when you need to take your tablet to the conference room for a quick meeting, but when you return to your desk there should be a rock-solid, wired connection waiting for you there!

First published in our January 2015 IT Radix Resource newsletter