The Beginning

You arrive at your desk, review your morning emails, then head to the weekly 8:30am meeting. You’re the first to present, so you open your laptop to load your presentation from the file share…Only to find a spinning cursor; your computer won't load the file. You're connected to the wireless network, your co-workers are happily surfing Facebook while they wait, but you cannot access a single thing. Why won't your computer load your presentation or access a site, even though everyone else seems to have no issue? Most importantly, what have you done to deserve this?

What is Happening?

Computers and networking are all about precision timing and spot-on calculations. Errors and unexpected results are due to the computer following a specific set of instructions provided by humans. In a way, there are no errors on computing devices, only bad instructions. So, connecting devices over a wireless corporate network follows a set of specifications and directions provided by a group of engineers—all very smart, and, I swear, not out to get you. What’s the issue then? The problem often comes down to one thing: It's all your fault, or more specifically, the fault of your computer or mobile device. You may believe I'm simply looking to blame someone other than myself, your dear Network Administrator. Most wireless connectivity issues, though, come down to your device refusing to do something about it's bad connection.

At the center of wireless connectivity problems is the issue of a device deciding to move from one wireless access point (WAP) to a different WAP with a better signal. At home, you likely have one piece of hardware that serves as a gateway to the internet. This hardware provides a wireless signal for your devices to connect from anywhere around the house. Your smartphone and laptop are designed with a single home wireless connection in mind. Smartphone and laptop manufacturers know we have very little patience when it comes to accessing websites or file shares; therefore, they instruct your devices to do everything they can to remain connected to that lone point of wireless access in your home (even if it is three floors up and in the farthest corner of the house). As you move farther away from your home wireless hardware, your device begins to modify how it connects to compensate for the quality of the connection. It slows the rate at which it communicates and sometimes switches to a wider wireless band that is much better at communicating across long distances. This is great in the average home, and it's the basis of your work wireless network. So why can't your laptop pull up that work presentation even though it has a strong wireless signal?

Let's return to the scenario of arriving at work and preparing for a meeting. When you walk in the front door, your device likely connected to the WAP hanging in reception—the first WAP it found as you walked in the door. As you walk down the hall to your office, you pass a WAP, and at your desk you have a WAP hanging from the ceiling outside your office. Considering device manufacturers designed your laptop around your home wireless network, it makes sense that your device is showing 1 bar of connectivity: It's still connected to the WAP in reception. As smart as your laptop appears, it doesn't know you're at work, and won't look for other WAPs with a better signal. Walking to your morning meeting may give you enough distance from the first associated WAP for your laptop to decide to finally disconnect. However, depending on other factors in your environment, it will often stay connected to the initial WAP. The process of your device hopping from one WAP to another is called 'roaming,' and it's the biggest wireless problem for Network Administrators.

What You Can Do

What can you and your company do about your wireless connection problems? A group of engineers called the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) make up a board whose purpose is to set the wireless standards for all devices. Their biggest challenge is the fact that wireless technologies move quickly, so applying band aids to address issues is about all they can do. Wireless technologies like 802.11k, making your device aware of the other WAPs around it, and 802.11r, a method of quickly roaming from one WAP to another, circumvent roaming issues; however, your device must understand these protocols, and your network likely doesn't use either because devices that don't support these protocols cannot join the wireless network at all. Making things more difficult is BYOD— the "Bring Your Own Device" movement—wherein employees may bring whatever device they own onto the company wireless network. This policy makes Network Administrators apprehensive to enable better roaming standards for fear of upsetting the CEO who just won't give up that old iPhone 3GS. As an employee, you have an option that works, and you probably already do it: Turn off your wireless network interface, then turn it back on—or just turn Airplane Mode on and off. Recycling your wireless network interface works because it forces your device to disconnect from the WAP in reception and find that WAP with the stronger signal right above you. The ham-handed method of forcing your device to look for another WAP feels primitive, but it's effective, and 802.11k and 802.11r are just more elegant solutions for the same issue. In short: You've been doing the right thing by restarting your smartphone or laptop to fix your wireless issues—just turn Airplane Mode on and off instead.

In your hands is the power to do something about your wireless issues: Forcing your device to disconnect from its associated WAP, and forcing it to find another. You shouldn’t have to do it, but it's the current state of the wireless industry. The final solution for Network Administrators is a few small clicks to enable wireless protocols that fix everything, yet they face an unknown number of vital employees losing complete access to the wireless network. It's the stuff of IT nightmares. Take pity on your Network Administrator, as they suffer from the same wireless issues as you AND must deal with the fury of others with the same problem. And hasn't pity for your Network Administrator been the topic of this article all along?

Greg Lloyd

Sr. IT Consultant | Afidence