Wi-Fi Upgrade / Refresh – How to Plan

12 April 2024

We’re seeing new Wireless Generations (802.11) added at a faster pace now, than ever before, and with more devices and organisations becoming reliant on the technology, it’s no surprise.

Not only are newer generations coming in, but so are newer features, and they aren’t just small things either, we’re gaining frequencies and with Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be) coming towards the end of 2024 giving us newer modulation technologies, larger channel widths and fancy additions like Multi-Link Operation (MLO). All of these things make organisations rethink their prior strategies, with organisations wanting to move to hot desking and promoting mobility, how can IT ensure that they align to business objectives?

Well, really the answer is, a higher frequency of Wi-Fi Refreshes, before, you could deploy Wi-Fi and enjoy a number of years before deploying, now we have people that have deployed Wi-Fi 6 and already want to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6E a couple of years later.

So we thought it only right, as an organisation that has helped a variety of organisations from Education to Industry refresh wireless networks, outline our big recommendations when planning a Wi-Fi Upgrade or Refresh.

Our Recommendations for a Successful Wi-Fi Upgrade

1. Review Existing Deployment

The first step we always take is a review of where we are, it makes the most logical sense for us and it’s something we can easily measure.

One of our favourite ways to do this is to conduct a Verification Survey, whilst these are commonly done following the deployment of a Wireless Network, they do verify exactly how the current Wi-Fi Deployment is performing, it gives us a really good idea on the current coverage across the building, highlighting any blackspots, it also gives us a great idea on the current Wireless Networks being broadcasted (BSSIDs), and their Wireless Network Security settings, whether that be Open, WPA2-PSK or 802.1X.

Coverage

We’ve hinted at it, but it’s a big thing that we’ll continue to talk about, but a Verification Survey picks up on the current Primary and Secondary Signal Strength currently available to our client devices, this gives us the optimal opportunity to identify blackspots of coverage.

It’s common that organisations will simply Rip & Replace Wi-Fi Access Points, what I mean by this is, if you’ve got 50 Access Points now, they order another 50 and simply rip the current down and replace with the new, it works (kind of), but only if the current coverage is suitable, and that also isn’t 100% accurate.

Configuration

Another thing we can pick-up on is the current configuration of your Wireless Network. It’s quite a broad statement, but it allows us to pick up on Channel Configuration, Amendments Activated, Data Rates and much more.

What this simply means is, it’s a general healthcheck, we can pick-up on how the current network is configured and offer our input on improvements for the deployment of the new, and it also gives us a chance to review. The world moves quickly, the IT world seems to move even quicker, and often Wireless Networks are deployed and rarely reviewed, what better time to review than now?

2. What’s Changed?

Once we know where we currently are, the next question we ask is What’s Changed? Well, really it depends on where you’re currently at, but as I mentioned, things move quick and therefore one of the key things we can be almost certain of is as follows, Security, Frequencies & Data Rates.

Security

With Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), Security became a big focal point and rightfully so, we’ve had WPA2 since 2004, we were long overdue an upgrade… so, in Wi-Fi 6, WPA3 is a mandatory requirement.

And it’s not just PSK or 802.1X Networks that have got encryption anymore, before Guest networks were commonly left unencrypted without a PSK, sure there may have been a captive portal, but it was still unencrypted, now we have OWE, Opportunistic Wireless Encryption, this means you can still lose the PSK, but you still get Encrypted Traffic.

And once you’re associated and authenticated, there’s also the ability for Wireless Networks to support Protected Management Frames (PMF), this removes the ability for some of the most common Wi-Fi Attacks.

The truth is though, these things are not no small fry to deploy, some devices don’t support WPA3, and it’s likely to be a while until we see an organisation have absolutely zero devices without WPA3 support so when it comes to deployment, this is a huge question mark.

One of the vital things to remember is, the security type of a Wireless Network is decided at SSID level. Lets imagine you want your BYOD Network to be available of 5GHz and 6GHz, what authentication type do you chose? Trick question, 6GHz only supports WPA3. Which then leaves you thinking, what do I do for 5GHz if I want a seamless experience for my user devices? Yeah, fun… There are definitely ways around it, with many vendors giving us WPA3 Transition Mode, in theory, this is meant to allow for SSIDs to offer both options, in practice, vendor depending, it’s not quite as easy…

Frequencies

We’ve hinted at it, and it’s no secret, Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7 both support the 6GHz frequency for Wi-Fi. Honestly, I’m ecstatic, as are our clients, mainly because it means I can ease up on the Co-Channel Interference conversation I seem to have on a daily basis.

But, it brings its own challenges, in the UK we get an additional 500MHz of frequency space, it effectively is double what we had if we ignore 2.4GHz.

When we went from 2.4GHz to 5GHz, we had a huge loss due to the wavelength and how that signal degrades through air and materials, we kind of have the same issue now with 5GHz and 6GHz, but it’s nowhere near as bad.

If we solely look at Free Space Path Loss, which is the degradation of signal strength through thin air, at 8m from the Access Point, we would have an RSSI of -58dB for 2.4GHz, -65dB for 5GHz and -67dB for 6GHz. So, as I said, it’s nowhere near as bad, but what we have to bear in mind is, we potentially just went from acceptable, to unacceptable RSSI.

So if we’re looking to do that Rip & Replace we just said about, we can end up with clients having issues later down the line.

Data Rates

Wi-Fi isn’t just for organisations, and therefore it’s marketed to home users too, and what sells more Access Points is headline Data Rates, these are theoretical data rates and that’s important to bear in mind, but, it’s no secret that Wi-Fi is getting quick, and with fancy things like MLO on the horizon, you do have to bear it in mind!

If you take a quick look at an MCS Table, which is effectively a table that tells you based on the criteria provided, what theoretical data rate you can be provided with. As I’m typing this on a Wi-Fi 6E Laptop connected to a Wi-Fi 6E Network, I have a data rate of 2161.8Mbps. That’s just absolutely mental. And for any fellow Wi-Fi Nerds getting potentially mad at me for my Channel Width, this is a home network and I’m not causing insane levels of CCI, I promise.

Anyway, back to this blog post, we are starting to see insane levels of theoretical and real world bandwidth, and it’s now prompting the real need for us to assess the cabling provided to the Access Points. Ready for a segway?

3. Network Cabling for Wi-Fi

If we were to look back at our Rip and Replace Access Point Deployment, often many installers or the company themselves upgrading access points, wouldn’t even test the network cabling, much less think about upgrading.

Your new shiny 802.11ax access points, now with potentially a minimum of three radios in them, aren’t going to think much to Category 5e Network Cabling.

Access Points are going to demand a real minimum of Category 6 now, and if we’re being honest, this is really where Category 6A shines.

Category 6A allows for 10Gbps of bandwidth to be available to each NIC on the Access Point, and not only that, but with its normally shielded design, it is great at disappaiting heat.

I’m sure you’re thinking, what on earth has heat got to do with this? Well, I did say a minimum of 3 Radios, at the high-end we’ve got Access Points like Cambiums XE5-8, it can gobble up a huge 59w of PoE due to it’s 802.3bt needs, it does have five radios in it after all (it’s a pretty cool AP).

4. Network Switches

It’s good to have the right network cabling in place that can support 2.5, 5 and even 10Gbps, but if it’s connected to a standard Gigabit PoE switch, it’s not going to do much.

Next on your list to check is, what network switches do you have, and how are they going to cope with the new data and power requirements?

And then once you’ve considered that, don’t forget about the Power and Rack Space available at your cabinets.

If we’re being honest, Multi-Gig Switches just aren’t really where they should be yet, and they are still madly expensive. This really is an area we can see that is going to change in the next 18-24 Months.

5. Access Point Placement

If you’ve got a Verification Survey done, you’ll know how your current placement is working, so when it comes to the new deployment we have a good idea on if we need to make adjustments. If we’re now going towards 6GHz, we of course should bear in mind the loss we’re going to get, over and above what we’re used to.

We use market leading software in-house that can simulate exactly how a new deployment will work, including what difference we’re going to see from 5GHz to 6GHz (it’s also very accurate). This can get your access point placement absolutely perfect.

This will of course have impacts for your Network Cabling and Network Switch requirements.

6. Regulatory Requirements and Abilities

We shared 2.4GHz with a huge amount of other technologies which added complexities, 5GHz was different with the main one being radar and giving us Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) to contend with, we haven’t quite escaped regulatory challenges with 6GHz,

The short version is, in the UK at the moment, Fixed External Wi-Fi isn’t able to operate in the 6GHz frequency space. I’ll go out on a limb and say, this is going to change, we just don’t quite know for sure, how, in the UK at least, around the world we’re seeing developments, it’s the hope that we can allow the rest of the world, and primarily the US to get it right, and then we can steal their answers.

If you want to get ahead a little, the US are currently using a technology called Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC).

7. Conclusion

Hopefully we’ve given some insight into how we approach our client Wi-Fi Upgrade projects, hopefully it’s clear that as an organisation we’re definitely not one to just plod ahead and hope for the best, as we all know Preparation is Key… and as well know the 7P’s are all to true.

If you’ve got any questions, comments or anything else, feel free to either drop me and the team an e-mail, or reach out over the phone.

Wi-Fi Upgrades really are something we do almost every day, so we’d be more than happy to work alongside you on your next!

About the Author

Joshua Passmore
Joshua Passmore

Joshua Passmore

Technical Director

Joshua Passmore is our Technical Director, he’s been part of the NDNS Team since 2015. He heads up our Technical Solutions and has a real soft spot for Wireless Technologies.

Upgrading to Wi-Fi 6E?

Download our guide to deploying Wi-Fi 6E with key considerations including Security and connotations caused by the 6GHz Frequency