What’s The Biggest Cause Of Co-Channel Interference?

In my last blog, What is a Clear Channel Assessment?, we discussed the difference between the signal detect (SD) threshold and the energy detect (ED) thresholds used by Wi-Fi radios to determine if the RF medium is busy. The ED threshold is used to detect any non-Wi-Fi transmissions while the SD the threshold is used to detect and decode an 802.11 preamble. Statistically, the SD threshold is about 4 dB above the noise floor whereas the ED threshold is 20 dB above the SD threshold.

The blog generated a lot of discussion on social media, and as my good friend and WLAN expert, Keith Parsons, pointed out, “Wi-Fi is 100 times more sensitive to other Wi-Fi than non-Wi-Fi interference!” Any Wi-Fi radio that hears another Wi-Fi radio on the same channel will defer and result in the medium contention overhead and delay.

As shown in Figure 1, despite a three-channel reuse pattern, APs on the same channel will hear each other and defer. For example, if AP-1 on channel 6 hears the preamble transmission of a nearby AP-2, also transmitting on channel 6, AP-1 will defer and cannot transmit at the same time. Likewise, all the clients associated to AP-1 must also defer transmission if they hear the preamble transmission of AP-2. All these deferrals create medium contention overhead and consume valuable airtime because you have two basic service sets on the same channel that can hear each other. Co-channel interference (CCI) is also often referred to as an overlapping basic service set (OBSS).

Figure 1

In reality, Wi-Fi clients are the primary cause of OBSS and CCI interference. As shown in Figure 2, if a client associated to AP-1 is transmitting on channel 11, it is possible that AP-2 (and any clients associated to AP-2) will hear the PHY preamble of the client and must defer any transmissions. Co-channel interference (CCI) is the top cause of needless airtime consumption that can be minimized with proper WLAN design best practices. What most people do not understand about CCI is the fact that clients are the number one cause of CCI. You should understand that CCI is not static and is always changing due to the mobility of client devices.

Figure 2

Because of the fact that only three channels are available in the 2.4 GHz band and because of CCI caused by clients, CCI is pretty much inevitable in the 2.4 GHz band. One strategy to reduce CCI in the 2.4 GHz band is to turn off a lot of the 2.4 GHz radios in dual-frequency access points and rely more of the coverage provided by the 5 GHz AP radios to meet density needs. While it is almost impossible to prevent CCI in the 2.4 GHz band, the airtime consumption that is a result of CCI can be minimized and possibly avoided with good 5 GHz WLAN design simply because there are more available channels.

Since CCI is such a big problem, why is the SD threshold for detecting an 802.11 preamble so sensitive? Probably the best answer is to minimize hidden nodes. In the early days of Wi-Fi, most WLANs were designed for wide coverage. A sensitive SD threshold helps to ensure that 802.11 stations hear each other, even at great distances. However, most modern-day WLANs are designed for user and device capacity as opposed to coverage. The sensitive SD threshold instead causes medium contention overhead because stations from overlapping basic service sets can hear each other.

In our next series of blogs, we will discuss the use of adaptive CCA thresholds for 802.11ax radios. BSS color (also known as BSS coloring) is a method for addressing medium contention overhead due to overlapping basic service sets.

Portions of this blog have been excerpted from the forthcoming 5thedition of Sybex Publishing’s Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) Study Guide: http://a.co/bXX3i9F


David Coleman is a wireless mobility consultant, public speaker, and trainer. For the last twenty years, David has instructed IT professionals from around the globe in enterprise WLAN design, WLAN security, WLAN administration and WLAN troubleshooting. In his spare time, David writes white papers, blogs, and books about enterprise Wi-Fi networking. David is the co-author of Sybex Publishing’s Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) Study Guide and numerous other books about Wi-Fi. David is the Senior Product Evangelist for Aerohive Networks and is CWNE #4.

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