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Wi-Fi’s annoying little secret: Not all Wi-Fi is created equal

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Everyone loves Wi-Fi. But as Wi-Fi use has grown, complaints have gone up. There’s constant carping from Amtrak riders about the service’s Wi-Fi. People on airplanes moan about the high costs or the slow connections. The tweets about crappy hotel Wi-Fi would fill a book.

Sure, more users mean more chances for a bad experience, but what’s happening here goes beyond that. As Wi-Fi expands into ever more unlikely places such as planes or trains, consumers are hopping online and then hopping off in irritation because the connection is expensive and it sucks. The problem is all Wi-Fi is not equal, and the industry and providers of Wi-Fi networks have so far done a poor job trying to explain that to the average consumer.

That has to change, and the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Sarah Morris, a senior marketing manager, says the organization’s members are thinking about the problem. She told me that most of the organization’s service provider members are focused on it because they are offering carrier-supported networks to offload traffic from the cellular networks, and they need the experience to be good because it’s part of the service they offer.

Companies like AT&T, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable are used to proving access technologies. But what about hotels, doctor’s offices or shopping malls? In some cases they might contract with a service provider and let them worry about the network, but in others consumers are left to stew. While I can’t improve everyone’s Wi-Fi experience outside of their home or office, I can offer some insights about the technology that might explain why your Wi-Fi is wimping out.

What makes Wi-Fi wonky?

Your home Wi-Fi connection is likely a wonderful experience. It’s fixed, you only share it with a few people and you probably have your router plugged into a cable, DSL or fiber line capable of delivering decent speeds. But when you log onto an airport network (or worse, an airplane network) all that changes. And consumers need to understand what’s changed and why their Wi-Fi experience is different. Here are the basics:

Backhaul: For most Wi-Fi is their access to the internet, but it’s actually just a radio technology that moves information over the air. New Wi-Fi Direct standards, for example, can create networks without ever having a connection back to the web. And that connection back to the web is a huge factor in your Wi-Fi experience. For example, hotel Wi-Fi is one of the banes of traveling and that’s generally because one hotel might have only a 100 Mbps pipe connecting it to the Internet or sometimes even a few T-1 circuits that offer 1.5 Mbps.

Density: Your in-home Wi-Fi is probably pretty good unless your teenager is deep into an online game while you’re trying to stream Netflix in HD, but the more people you add to a network — even if those people are just checking their Facebook page — the worse the network will perform. And if you cram a lot of people into a small space you have to deal with interference as well. So this is why Wi-Fi on planes, stadiums and other places with shared connections can be dodgy, although a managed network with many access points can help mitigate some of those problems.

Movement: Wi-Fi connectivity is designed for fixed access, meaning the radios stay put. You can move around within a hotspot, but unlike cellular technology that is designed for the user to be moving even at speeds of 80 miles per hour, when you try to jump from hot spot to hot spot problems occur. That’s why Wi-Fi networks on Amtrak and some planes use cellular or cellular-inspired networks.

Device: Newer phones and tablets are supporting a dual-mode Wi-Fi radio, which means they can hop from the 2.4 Ghz band to the 5 GHz band. This matters for laptop users, whose machines have had this functionality for a while. When one band got crowded, the laptop would hop to the other, but now with phones like the latest iPhone that have dual-band support, you may hop to another band only to find a bunch of other users.

Put it all together and what do you get?

Given these constraints, it hopefully makes a little more sense when you can’t download a movie while on Amtrak or your Facebook video keeps buffering as you surf on the jetway. Unfortunately, with so many variables, there’s not a lot that the Wi-Fi Alliance or even the hot spot provider can always do. If there’s a business case for faster backhaul and a better managed network, the provider will make it happen. But in places like a doctor’s office or free hotel Wi-Fi where that economic incentive isn’t always clear, they may not. And for crowded planes and trains, the solution may just be for users to grin and bear it.

Wi-Fi image courtesy of Flickr user suttonhoo

19 Responses to “Wi-Fi’s annoying little secret: Not all Wi-Fi is created equal”

  1. Industrial Digital

    I do wifi system designs for campgrounds and trailer parks. Owners of these venues have the exact same problems and concerns…heavy-users. They are also, to an owner, adamant about controlling their monthly costs. Fee-for-service solutions are not acceptable to them. Low energy use is demanded.

    Given the typical limited bandwidth that these facilities have, and the no-monthly-fee constraint of the owners, I set about on a search for a standalone solution. I found a small in-line processor by Guest-Internet that solves most of these problems.

    The G-I device simply plugs in between the Internet modem and the system of APs you want to control. It applies quality-of-service rules to all connected users and makes sure your system runs ‘fair and square’. If Ron Popiel was selling wifi controllers, this is the one he would sell because you “just set it and forget it”.

    Venue users went from hearing many complaints about wifi service to hearing virtually none because the controller solved all of the problems they were having. Happy customers means happy managers. Did I mention no monthly fees…?

    I generally recommend the GIS R-4 unit (US$227) as it handles 100 concurrent users, about 5 APs worth of users (figuring 20 per AP). This probably covers 85% of applications that I see in the field.

    I have no connection at all to Guest-Internet (other than as a satisfied consultant), but I thought it would be helpful for those owners who are struggling with this issue, and are looking for a cost-effective way to resolve their problems.

  2. John Pettitt

    Another issue not mentioned is “buffer bloat” – specifically the memory buffers in most wifi devices and particularly in routers are too big. This means that the congestion control built into tcp/ip doesn’t work properly and leads to failure modes where the system works well until a saturation point where it collapses badly. Combine that with under provisioned backhaul and you get the experience seen in Las Vegas hotels during CES.

    I’ve also seen under provisioning of IP space – this shows up in conference venues where you can’t even connect to the wifi because it won’t allocate you an IP from the too small DHCP pool (the Hyatt in SF had this issue at the recent ONA conference). Using a /24 with long DHCP leases on a public access point is a bad idea.

  3. Richard Bennett

    Good article. One thing I would clarify is that you almost never encounter any density-related issues in the 5.8 GHz band. It has a lot more spectrum available, 250 MHz compared to 80 MHz in the 2.5 GHz band, and it’s free of interference from microwaves and baby monitors. And lot fewer devices use it because so many people have single-band access points that don’t support 5.8. The real Super Wi-Fi, 802.11ac, relies on 5.8 to get four channels bonded together for gigabit throughput. It still needs good backhaul, of course.

    • i think it should be in some cities – but only for basics like mail and maps so tourists can find their way around with google maps/navigation far more easily. maybe use an app to call a cab to their current gps location or something.

      that way they’re more inclined to wander around more, enjoy their visit more and possibly spend more. no fear of getting lost with a smartphone – unless you use apple maps i suppose

  4. A huge key is they hotels do not “bandwidth manage” heavy bandwidth use. TCP by default splits the bandwidth between all “connections”. So say there are 4 people on a high speed wi-fi. 3 are surfing the web and 1 is using p2p with 100+ connections. Default TCP stack will give 95%+ bandwidth to the p2p user and the web browsers experience will stink. The way around this is to install software that shares available bandwidth equally among “mac addresses” (each computer has it’s own unique MAC) so someone using lots of connections can’t hog. But wi-fi providers are always 99% clueless to even know what bandwidth management is and their access from a clueless (huge overcharging) 3rd party who just plain doesn’t care about quality period. This means these unused solutions to problems that have been with us for well over and decade will likely never be used any time soon.

  5. Visit my local Starbucks. Not only is it only fed by T-1 (as most are), the signal is at half strength 30 feet across the room. If there is a standing-room-only crowd lining up for their froo-froo drinks, it just goes away.

    It doesn’t help that the shop is surrounded by corporate networks that flood the airwaves with a dozen APs each on high power.

    The Golden Arches down the street is even worse. Not a problem, given the “ambiance” one finds in their lobby, few would want to sit there a moment longer than necessary.

    The local cable franchise started putting up AP’s on major boulevards. If you can hit one, they’re quite speedy.
    But that’s a big IF.

    • Starbucks and McDonalds were all part of Wayport which was acquired by AT&T. If memory serves me correct, even though the wifi is what got the press, the contract was for a much larger managed services contract. T1s were probably used because you knew for sure one could be obtained at any location and were more reliable than dsl or cable even if available. Most contracts would have service level agreements as to network reliability.

      As to coverage, some of them for sure a quite old now. I know of a Starbucks near my house at a red light and my phone will download email from there connection while I am at the light. But then again, this is a newer Starbucks.

  6. From a service providers point of view in hotels, designing and deploying an enterprise grade wifi system with high capacity and interference mitigation is really not that difficult. The problem we see most in hotels is the backhaul. Backhaul decisions from will vary geographically based on what is available and the associated costs. Major metropolitan areas usually have good speed backhaul at competitive pricing to the owner, But move even a few miles out of the metro area and you may be lucky to get 3mb dsl. We can of course bond multiple lines but sometimes lack of quality backhaul will limit the usability of the system so we have to optimize what can be our only choice.

    Brian Converse
    Kharma Consulting, Inc.

  7. I’d add that Wi-Fi slows down as more users attach to the same access point. I’ve seen some improvement in throughput when I move to a less crowded area in an airport. If I don’t see an improvement it’s more likely a backhaul problem or something about how the AP or network is configured.