How Do You Solve Wi-Fi Challenges In Older Buildings?

Wi-Fi problems due to old construction sounds like a home Wi-Fi problem, but a lot of businesses face this challenge as well. Especially businesses in the UK and Europe. For context on what “old” means outside the relatively young United States, “All buildings erected before 1700 that ‘contain a significant proportion of their original fabric’ are listed under the listed building status in the UK.

Regardless, these distinctive old building make for great schools, and places of business – even if it messes with the Wi-Fi. In this post I write about the issues and solutions regarding the use of Wi-Fi in these old buildings. It’s pretty interestig stuff, and builds upon a previous post in which I specifically wrote about how it impacts UK universities, which are notorious for their age and history.

Why old buildings?

It does wonders for your recognition if your office looks like the Adams Family’s house or Manderley and a quirky workplace environment can be great for attracting staff. But there’s a downside: Anyone looking to get connected immediately runs into a snag. Put simply, Wi-Fi often doesn’t work well – an obvious sticking point for anyone trying to survive in the modern age,

The obvious answer is to go down the old-fashioned route and get the building wired for additional access points, but this isn’t always an option. Apart from the cost, if the building has listed building status in the UK (or its equivalent in other European countries), there’s a limited amount of work that can be done within the infrastructure and drilling holes and cabling everywhere may not be an option.

Modern buildings will take into account of the need for wireless connectivity: They will be built of materials that will offer little impedance to signals. Conduit will also be installed incase additional wiring is ever needed.

This is not an issue that concerned their architectural forebears. One of the major problems is with houses built in the Victorian and Edwardian era (and even earlier). A common building material was plaster and lath with chicken wire. The wire was frequently used to help the plaster stick to the walls: it’s great for building but a nightmare when it comes to Wi-Fi as the wire turns the whole house into a Faraday cage, ensuring some real connectivity problems.

There are exceptions: If the mesh is widely spread then it will let radio signals through. As a rule of thumb, you’re looking for mesh to be greater than one tenth of the Wi-Fi wavelength – for 2.4GHz, that means about an inch (and above). Any smaller than that, and you’ll be running into problems.   

The problems with metal don’t stop there. Older buildings will have plumbing fashioned from metal pipes: copper or even cast iron – these will act as another barrier. Even paints could have an effect – many old paints were metallic-based, adding to the problems.                             

And it’s not just metal that’s the culprit. Many old houses in the UK are built from stone. The dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century provided a ready-made source of building material, townspeople would simply help themselves.

Those solid blocks may not have the interference of chicken wire, but they tended to be very thick and blocks of 60cm or more can play havoc with wireless signals. While the rest of Europe didn’t have a monastic source of building blocks, stone was still a popular choice for larger, more elaborate buildings – with all the accompanying Wi-Fi problems.

for advanced tips on planning your deployment, especially one supporting an explosion of  
mobile devices, IoT devices and BYOD devices, please read David Coleman’s post, Designing WLANS: What If We Could Double Our Airtime At 5 GHz? http://hivene.ws/1MQiy1j

What can be done to get around the problems of old buildings? Here are a few simple tips:

  • First of all, there needs to be a thorough analysis of where the dead spots are. A good site survey will help identify where the actual problems are at. You also need to determine where you actually need connectivity as well.
  • Having identified where the problems lie, there are several options. If the Wi-Fi signal is particularly weak, then it may be time to use some cable in the room (but they may be problems with this approach, as indicated earlier) for additional hard wired access points.. More usual is meshing technology to help extend the signal to areas where it’s not practical to run new wires.

There are many attractions about working in an old building that’s full of character but it may be appropriate to do your homework before moving in. 

One thing that can’t be done to a building made of solid blocks of stone is to knock it all down and start again – they were built to last.

 

 

Max is a freelance journalist who has been writing about IT for nearly 30 years. He was the founder-editor of Cloud Pro. He also launched the website, Techworld, and was editor of the weekly newspaper, Network Week. He has written for many computer publications, contributed to national newspapers, and is a frequent conference speaker.

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