Set up WiFi that just works. Even with hundreds of heavy users.

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Photo credit: miniyo73


"What's the WiFi password?" You hold your breath.

The response to that question could be an early warning sign.

You dread a response like: "Select BT2223fs2 and then use password XFOVSG3s235SDFS43 all capitals except for the first F and second S... oh and sorry I should have said that it's actually a zero not an oh".

You check the network names, four start with BT. Uh, how do you remember all that?

The person you asked reaches for a slip of paper. You breath a little, now lets hope it's typed and not handwritten. Your heart sinks when you see this isn't going to be simple. Rather than a network name and password there are instructions detailing how to login. It takes you 5 minutes to go through the screens of their custom designed portal. It seems hell bent on learning as much about you as possible. Then you get bombarded with messages that look like adverts. This is getting ridiculous.

You've had experiences like this dozens of times before. In some spaces it was on every visit. They're tolerable when they result in a fast, stable connection. But what if you still end up waiting 3 minutes to load a 60 second YouTube video? And how many times have you ended up starring at a blinking exclamation mark on your WiFi status bar?

WiFi's been available to consumers for over 15 years. With a little care, it's unnecessary for you or your coworkers to keep suffering like this. How would it feel if WiFi just worked everywhere you went? How many hours would it save you every year?

You show up at a new workplace. There's no need to ask for the password, it's one of the first things you see. On the wall nice and big you see a poster dedicated to it. The network name and password are obvious. The network is so logically named you knew what to choose even before you saw the poster. The password is so simple, you'd still get it right first time even if someone said it to you while sneezing.

You're online and the connection feels faster than when you’re home with nobody else in. You find yourself looking around the room to see if anyone else is using it. You visit SpeedTest.net and the dial zips over to the red 100M zone. It stays there for both download and upload speeds, appearing to find even more dial for the needle. Over the coming months you completely forget that bad WiFi exists. Every day you return to the new workspace it's connected the moment you open your laptop. None of your coworkers have uttered the words "Is the WiFi working for you...?". You're all in WiFi heaven.

You have the power to make this a reality. And you don't need to spend tens of thousands on consultants or "enterprise grade kit".

There are two areas you can focus on to take your WiFi closer to WiFi heaven. Firstly you can make some improvements for free which should cover you for up to 15 simultaneous users. Next, a little investment in WiFi equipment can help you support hundreds of simultaneous users.


Improvements you can make for free:


1. Keep it simple

You might feel your workspace needs some clever per user password system. Maybe you fear, or have experienced security problems or abuse.

Captive portals seem like a great solution. They bounce users to a beautiful tailor-made or branded login page. Space managers love the control and extra data they can provide. Some workspaces even use them to manage billing. It sounds great, and it's not difficult to find a sales person who will sing their praises. But you won't just be paying for extra setup costs. These kinds of systems add a layer of complexity that make problems much more likely.

Don't lean on technology to manage the security risks and reduce the likelihood of abuse. Talk to your coworkers, ask why there might be a lack of trust and try to resolve those issues in the real world.

Your WiFi will be far more reliable if you stick to a simple network name and a single password.


2. Network Name

There's no such thing as a good WiFi router that doesn't allow you to change the WiFi network name (also known as ssid). If your workspace's network name doesn't make logical sense - change it. The sooner you do it the more people will benefit. If you don't have access to the router or aren't confident changing the settings, ask your coworkers for help. Make sure you make the change at the end of the day. And make sure all your coworkers know the change is happening ahead of time.

Take the opportunity to change the password at the same time.


3. Password

If you can change the name of your WiFi network you can probably change the password too. If you're worried about security you might not want to make the password short and weak. That's OK, simple doesn't have to mean short. You could use a long phrase that's secure and welcoming. Maybe something like:

helpyourselftoacoffee

or

welcometoyournewworkspace

Avoid mixing cases and ambigouos characters like: 'I's, '1's, 'i's, 'l's, '0's or ‘o's.


4. Poster

If the password for your WiFi network isn't already up on the wall make a nice poster – it’ll stop you getting disrupted by dreaded "What's the WiFi password?". If you're not confident in your design skills then use the Comic Sans font as big as you can fit on the page. Add a note to the bottom: "If you cringed at the font choice for this poster, please show off your design skills by replacing it." If there is anyone with an eye for design in your space it shouldn't take long for a replacement to be made.

Just be careful where you put the poster. You probably don't want people outside of your workspace to be able to see it.


Investments you can make:


5. Access Points / Hotspots

When you have more than 15 coworkers and/or more than 1000 sq ft of space you're going to need more than a standard consumer extender. Cheap WiFi equipment is designed for homes and small offices with less than 10 people.

Companies like Meriki and Ruckus make great professional equipment that's reasonably priced. Ten years ago if you wanted that level of service you'd have to buy crazy expensive Cisco hardware. That would have meant tens of thousands of pounds of hardware and consultancy. But a fundamental challenge exists with equipment from the likes of Cisco, Meriki and Ruckus. You need quite a bit of network admin experience to set it up. If you're not up to it, ask your coworkers, you'll probably find one who's up for the challenge.

But finding a coworker who can maintain that equipment long term isn't easy. We tried it for a while at our coworking space (The Skiff) but the maintenance became a real pain. Every time our neighbours changed their WiFi equipment we had to work to keep ours working well.

Fortunately there's another option and we've never had a better experience with WiFi. The UniFi AP-PRO is becoming the WiFi access point of choice for Coworking spaces. It's easier to configure than most consumer WiFi equipment but highly capable. What's more, the software to manage multiple access points is also free rather than an add-on. I recommend you start with a three pack - that currently costs around £500 ($700). You don't have to think about things like channels and power levels. UniFi's software is smart enough to choose the best settings and adjust as and when needed. Any of your coworkers with a little IT experience should be able to get these up and running within an hour.

If your space gets busy, upgrading is easy. The Unifi AP-PROs work best serving less than 20 devices at a time each. When that happens you can change their locations to cover the busy parts of your space. Or you can add more (it takes about 3 minutes to add a new one). Unifi's software will adjust WiFi power and channels so they play nicely with each other.


6. Firewall / Router

Creating a stable network for lots of devices requires more than a bunch of good access points. You need a way to connect them safely to the Internet and give each device a unique IP address.

On small networks with less the 15 devices you usually have one box provided by your ISP that does this as well as delivering the WiFi. Larger networks need something more subsancial.

A small business-class Draytek Vigor 2830 will happily support around 50 devices. They're similar to consumer equipment so not difficult to set up.

To support hundreds of devices you need to go bigger again. There are all sorts of options for this. Ask your coworkers for opinions, especially as they might be able to set one up for you. The Unifi Security Gateway at less than £100 is a good choice if you've decided to go with Unifi access points. As with the access points its surprisingly simple to configure compared to competing products.


7. Internet Connection

At some point your connection to the Internet, not your WiFi or local network will be your bottleneck. As with consumer WiFi equipment, consumer Internet connections aren't designed for lots of users. As a rule of thumb you should budget around £10-15 per simultaneous user per month. So a workspace with 40 coworkers per day should expect to spend £400-600 per month.

There are various types of connection (and sometimes government grants) depending on your location. Here are some things to consider when deciding what to go for:

  • Find out how many businesses or homes might be sharing parts of your supply. You'll be sharing it with your coworkers, you don't want to share it with anyone else. Consumer connections are often shared across 20 homes. (its sometimes referred to as your contention ratio)
  • Make sure there are no download caps, upload caps or any other kinds of limitations for your ISP to surprise you with. You don't want to get into the business of pushing limits down onto your coworkers.
  • Don't focus too much on download speed. A higher (or matched) upload speed will make a bigger difference when you have hundreds of users. While 25mbps might seem lower than many cheap consumer packages it can be plenty for 40+ people.

We followed the above advice at The Skiff and we haven't looked back. We've been enjoying WiFi that just works for the last 2 years. If you're still struggling there's light at the end of the tunnel. Share this post with your coworkers and start making some improvements to your WiFi today.


So your space has good WiFi?

Now it's time to make it the most productive and comfortable space you've ever worked in:

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