We all take Wi-Fi for granted. Whether at home, in restaurants or other public areas we rely on it to connect our devices to the internet.

It is the same in the office. Additionally, with the change in working patterns triggered by Covid, more and more users are defaulting to using their Wi-Fi network rather than plugging in to the cabled network. This brings unintended consequences for themselves and other users in the building. Bridge Fibre has been providing Wi-Fi networks in Science Parks and Innovation Centres for over 10 years and over that period we’ve seen an enormous increase in Wi-Fi usage.

The growth of Wi-Fi

The proliferation of wireless devices means that many of us walk around with three or more of them in use. The benefit we get in terms of convenience (especially if we are hybrid working between home and “office”) is, however, offset by an invisible cost when it comes to overall networking performance.

While this may not matter so much in a standalone or isolated office, its impact peaks in a multi-tenanted office environment. The number of separate wireless network entities broadcasting in a busy hotdesking space or other high traffic area can reach as many as 300. While this won’t stop the Wi-Fi network operating, it is likely to lead to congestion and poor service where there is competition for finite resource.

This finite resource is wireless frequencies, which deliver the bandwidth we are all trying to access. What makes it worse is that these frequencies are allocated by Ofcom on a free use basis, which means that not only are they unmanageable, it may actually be illegal to try and manage them.

As user occupancy levels rise post-lockdown and the proliferation of devices continues unabated, the problem worsens and is now reaching crisis point in many locations. Users become frustrated as they can’t get the performance they would like, and then complain to landlords and service providers.

Solving Wi-Fi congestion issues

The old adage that nothing comes for free is probably apt here. Even if we and the landlord invest in state of the art wireless access points to ensure near ubiquitous signal coverage, there simply aren’t enough channels and bandwidth to support hundreds of users in one building.

As a service provider managing networks in multi-tenanted commercial property, we can provide a wireless access service as part of the overall service we deliver to tenants. We can configure and manage the service but we cannot control access to the wireless frequencies and channels that it uses. We simply (by law) cannot manage or limit access to those frequencies and channels.

The problem is worsened as more tenants buy their own wireless equipment and compete for the same resources with existing users. While landlords and service providers might encourage tenants to use the managed network that they provide, experience has shown that they will use unregistered devices and set up their own networks anyway.

One simple solution is to encourage people to use the cabled connections which (in most cases) are freely available to them. Printers tend to stay in one place, they are hardly portable devices. They should be using a fixed network port. But the same is true for most people with allocated work space, even if only provided on a day to day basis. Even hotdesk spaces usually have network ports.

But I hear you say “My laptop doesn’t have an Ethernet network port”.  However, an Ethernet dongle (even for a Mac) costs as little as £10-40. In exchange for a consistent level of performance without the risk of dropouts, the cost involved and the minor inconvenience of plugging in a cable seems trivial. That leaves Wi-Fi available for devices without ports such as phones and tablets.

The other solution may seem rather unpalatable. We may just have to accept that our expectations of unlimited free wireless network resources are untenable, particularly in terms of guaranteed quality, irrespective of the service provider or Wi-Fi setup. In the multi-tenanted office environment it simply isn’t possible (or legal) to guarantee performance. As we move back to having more people in these office environments, users need to understand the downsides of Wi-Fi and plan accordingly.

Bob Cushing, Sales and Marketing Director