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Stanford team tries for zippier Wi-Fi in crowded buildings

Stephen Lawson | March 6, 2014
Having lots of Wi-Fi networks packed into a condominium or apartment building can hurt everyone's wireless performance, but Stanford University researchers say they've found a way to turn crowding into an advantage.

BeHop also differs from enterprise wireless LANs, and from residential systems based on enterprise-class APs such as Ruckus', with its consumer-grade access points. The Stanford team used the approach of blanketing the dorm with inexpensive APs and skipping the typically expensive and time-consuming task of conducting a site survey for optimal placement. They don't yet have performance numbers for the network, but they expect to produce those in the coming months.

Ruckus says its enterprise-class APs, which cost anywhere from US$500 to $1,000 each, are built to use spectrum better than consumer-grade units priced at $200 and below. The Ruckus APs point their signals at a user's device rather than blasting transmissions across a wide area, which helps no matter how the network is managed, said David Callisch, vice president of corporate marketing.

Wi-Fi routers that consumers buy for their own units don't clash with each other very often, because they usually don't transmit on the same channel at the exact same time, said Farpoint Research analyst Craig Mathias. As more devices come out with radios for both the crowded 2.4GHz band and the more spacious 5GHz band, they'll have even more channels to choose from. But demands on all Wi-Fi frequencies will continue to grow, he said.

"It hasn't been as big a problem as people are making it out to be," Mathias said. "Over time, though, it will become more of a problem."

Enterprise Wi-Fi systems have sophisticated mechanisms for dividing up spectrum to provide the most possible capacity, but consumer-grade routers have very little. At most, a router that's set to automatically pick a channel will check to see which one's already busy, but it may not do that quickly or often enough, Mathias said.

"If everybody uses their own router, you don't have a prayer" of getting optimal spectrum use, Mathias said. That said, when performance lags, it's usually because the shared wired connection to the Internet is too narrow, he said. Farpoint recommends multi-unit dwellings use centrally deployed and managed Wi-Fi with enterprise-class access points.

The technology being developed at Stanford could be offered by access-point vendors, a managed service provider, a building owner, or an Internet service provider, Yiakoumis said. He and his colleagues are leaving the business model to others. It would work best if the residents shared the same broadband service, he said. Because Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum, other residents might set up their own Wi-Fi routers anyway. But the more who participated, the better the network's overall performance, he said.

"We're just trying to improve things as much as we can," he said.

 

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