With the popularity of smartphones, everyone has become used to accessing Wi-Fi networks anytime, anywhere. Because Wireless LAN (WLAN) access is easy and transparent, Wi-Fi devices for a company, shopping mall, or hotel seem to work the same as home Wi-Fi. These Wi-Fi devices differ in significant ways, however, and the differences are important to understand when setting up enterprise Wi-Fi networks. This article looks at the differences between home and commercial Wi-Fi.
The easiest difference to see is that a home Wi-Fi router looks a little different from a commercial Access Point (AP) used to implement a Wi-Fi network for an enterprise. A home Wi-Fi router usually has several external antennas, as shown in Figure 1. Commercial indoor APs typically have built-in antennas, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 1: Home Wi-Fi router Figure 2: Commercial AP for enterprises
Price is another difference. A home Wi-Fi router costs tens to hundreds of dollars, while a commercial AP costs hundreds or thousands of dollars. The reason for the price difference lies in the AP’s many advanced features, beginning with the interface ports.
Most home Wi-Fi routers have 100 Mbit/s uplink ports, although some have 1,000 Mbit/s ports.
In most cases, indoor APs are mounted on the ceiling, and they provide GE and 2.5 GE uplink ports. The latest Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) APs have 10 GE uplink ports and can easily support bandwidth-intensive applications such as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Ultra-High-Definition Television (UHDTV).
Home Wi-Fi devices typically have the following features:
• Support for the 802.11ac Wi-Fi protocol.
Commercial Wi-Fi APs are more complex. The wireless protocol is more involved, for example. Wi-Fi standard protocols developed from 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac, and 802.11ac Wave 2, to the latest 802.11ax. The bit rate increases accordingly: 100 Mbit/s for 802.11b/g/n, 1,000 Mbit/s for 802.11ac and 802.11ac Wave 2, and 10 Gbit/s for 802.11ax. Therefore, Wi-Fi protocol evolution has brought higher Wi-Fi network rates and several fold increases in the network access capacity.
Some home Wi-Fi routers on the market have 802.11ac Wave 1 chips. Most commercial APs support 802.11ac Wave 2, and the latest APs support the 802.11ax standard.
Both home and commercial Wi-Fi devices support the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. In most cases, the 5 GHz band is preferentially selected. In addition to 5G-prior access, commercial Wi-Fi APs perform load balancing to ensure a similar access load across stations, better leveraging 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bandwidth.
Home Wi-Fi routers generally support isolation between the host Wi-Fi network and the guest Wi-Fi network, but commercial Wi-Fi APs have even higher security requirements. In most cases, an AP supports more than 16 SSIDs, which can be provided to different types of users. Employees can use one SSID, for example, while guests, office equipment, and production devices each get different SSIDs. Using these SSIDs and Virtual LAN (VLAN) assignment, independent subnets can be implemented with different authentication features and access policies. In this way, end-to-end security isolation between the WLAN and wired network is implemented. Such functions are not available on typical home Wi-Fi products.
While home Wi-Fi routers allow configuration of Internet access time and speed, commercial Wi-Fi APs support these functions based on SSIDs and applications (such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime) in addition to providing refined access control using URLs.
Home and commercial Wi-Fi devices differ greatly in the components inside the device. These components include silicon chips with integrated radio channels, Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs), antennas, and power supplies.
Generally, home Wi-Fi routers use inexpensive chips that provide low CPU processing performance. Therefore, when 5 to 10 terminals access a home Wi-Fi router, its CPU responds slowly, which leads to a low network speed for all terminals and may even cause some terminals to go offline. A commercial Wi-Fi AP provided by a mainstream vendor can support as many as 512 terminals. With user experience and bandwidth guaranteed, the Wi-Fi AP allows a maximum of 60 concurrent terminals. Additionally, the CPU performance and transmit power of commercial Wi-Fi APs are much more higher than those of home Wi-Fi routers. Therefore, the number of access terminals, stability, and coverage range of commercial Wi-Fi APs are significantly better.
Home Wi-Fi routers do not support radio calibration. Therefore, when the signal strength is displayed good on a terminal, the communication quality may not be good, and link disconnection may occur occasionally. Radios of commercial Wi-Fi APs are strictly tested and calibrated to ensure high performance.
The quality of the PCB inside the Wi-Fi device is also important for ensuring performance. While some home Wi-Fi routers use a 4-layer PCB, most use a 2-layer board. As a result, the power supply layers in the board may not be complete, which can allow digital noise to interfere with radio signals. The PCB of a commercial Wi-Fi AP has four to eight layers, which helps minimize noise and improve signal quality.
For more convenient installation and better coverage, commercial Wi-Fi APs use built-in antennas. These antennas support automatic detection of surrounding interference and user locations, and dynamic adjustment of signal strength in each direction. Small-angle high-density antennas adapt to different application scenarios to enhance wireless performance and coverage. Restricted by home user requirements and costs, home Wi-Fi routers use simple external antennas that are not optimized for the material of the AP shell, PCB routing, and antenna installation direction.
Finally, power supplies differ for home and commercial Wi-Fi devices. Many commercial Wi-Fi APs support the IEEE 802.3af Power over Ethernet (PoE) capability. To ensure the interoperability of devices, mainstream Wi-Fi APs use the IEEE 802.3af power supply standard as a basic function. In general, home Wi-Fi routers do not support the PoE function and therefore require an additional power adapter.
The roaming function enables a user to access a Wi-Fi network in one location and travel to other locations served by other access devices without losing the Wi-Fi connection. During roaming, a terminal such as a smartphone switches from one Wi-Fi access device to another. Homes typically need only one Wi-Fi router to cover the entire house, so home routers do not provide specific support for roaming.
Roaming can still work on home routers, but it places higher demands on the user terminal. Consider a business with four offices connected by a long hall. Four home Wi-Fi routers are deployed, one in each office, and each router has its own SSID. For roaming, a smartphone has to connect to each router in turn, using that router’s SSID and password. It is possible for smartphones to do this automatically if the passwords have been entered previously. Guests of the business would have to enter each password manually while walking from one office to the next.
How about configuring one SSID and the same password for all four of the home Wi-Fi routers? Although a phone detects only one SSID, when a user walks from one office to the next, the phone remains connected to the Wi-Fi signal of the previous router and cannot be associated with the closer router that provides a stronger signal. As the user gets farther away from the original router, the Wi-Fi signal is eventually interrupted and the phone is re-authenticated to connect to the closer router. Although the user does not need to reconnect manually or enter the password, the network service is interrupted.
Thus, on a home Wi-Fi network, a mobile terminal can connect to a new access device only after disconnecting from the previous device and re-authentication. This problem does not occur on a commercial Wi-Fi AP. After a mobility group is configured through the local AC or cloud management platform, APs can share user authentication information. In this manner, fast roaming is achieved without service interruption, and no re-authentication is required. A terminal can be actively identified and steered to an AP that is close and has small path loss, good signal, and high rate.
One tip for improving the Wi-Fi access speed of home routers is to switch the Wi-Fi router channel to 6. The default 2.4 GHz channel of a home Wi-Fi router is channel 1. Therefore, most people in a neighborhood may be using channel 1, which causes a lot of signal interference. The signal strength might show as high on a terminal, but the network speed may be low or the terminal may frequently go offline.
Commercial APs minimize this kind of interference by providing automatic capabilities that home routers do not: automatic radio calibration with dynamic channel and power adjustment. In most cases, a large number of Wi-Fi APs are deployed on enterprise networks, including shopping malls, pedestrian streets, stadiums, and offices. If the channel parameters of each AP were manually adjusted, the workload would be huge. Therefore, after enterprise Wi-Fi APs are installed, a radio calibration algorithm allows channels to be automatically adjusted to reduce interference between APs. Figure 3 shows the automatic radio calibration result for APs on each floor of a building. Figure 4 shows the 2.4 GHz channel cellular diagram. APs work on non-overlapping channels that are not adjacent, which ensures low interference between APs.
Figure 3: Channel distribution of APs on each floor
Figure 4: 2.4G channel cellular diagram
As shown in Figure 5, coverage areas of APs can overlap. In these areas, signal interference can be a serious problem. Therefore, each AP must be able to detect the signal strength of neighboring APs and adjust its own transmit power accordingly. For example, when a new AP is added, the other APs may automatically reduce their transmit power to reduce interference. If an AP is faulty, the surrounding APs can automatically increase their transmit power to fill coverage holes.
Figure 5: Signal coverage between neighboring APs
To a network engineer, the free Wi-Fi network in a hotel or restaurant that requires users to get a password is not actually a commercial Wi-Fi network. A commercial Wi-Fi network does not need to ask for the password. Users can access the Internet through authentication based on a method such as SMS verification code, mobile number registration, or WeChat public account login. During user authentication, the commercial Wi-Fi network can display merchant advertisements on the portal page, promote merchant brands, and push public accounts or Apps to attract followers and provide online services for customers.
Additionally, a commercial Wi-Fi network has a background user management platform to collect statistics about online users and analyze online user behavior to achieve the full value of commercial Wi-Fi. For example, Huawei’s Agile Controller-Campus, a cloud management platform, can remotely manage all network devices at branches in a centralized manner. This cloud management platform helps merchants collect and analyze user data, intelligently record daily customer traffic, and provide clear statistics for merchants. The merchants can leverage this information to operate the stores and maintain high customer traffic. Even if only one AP is deployed on the cloud management platform, a merchant can use these marketing tools without deploying an authentication server locally. This simplicity greatly reduces the investment of small- and medium-sized enterprises.
The networking of home Wi-Fi routers is simple. They can be directly connected to a cable modem or DSL network port, and managed wirelessly or through a network cable to the router.
In contrast, an enterprise may have dozens or even hundreds of APs that need to be managed in a systematic and centralized manner. Centralized remote management can be achieved by WLAN Access Controllers (ACs) or a cloud management platform. Compared with local management of ACs, the cloud management approach is gradually becoming the method of choice for enterprises because it can efficiently manage remote branch offices in a centralized and automatic manner. By purchasing cloud-managed devices and licenses, enterprises can configure and monitor devices on the cloud. The AC, Network Management System (NMS), and authentication server do not need to be deployed locally. Using these resources on the cloud greatly reduces the initial cost of a network. In addition, the cloud management platform has open APIs that allow users to develop more value-added applications. Users can even authorize professional Management Service Providers (MSPs) to perform network management and O&M, while the enterprise keeps its focus on business.
This article has offered a description of the differences between home and enterprise Wi-Fi. When deploying a Wi-Fi network, enterprises can benefit from carefully considering the choice of devices and cloud management network platforms that can deliver the features and reliable service needed for stable wireless networks. Enterprises can discover new business opportunities by exploring data value from wireless networks.