How to Build a Wi-Fi Network in Your Law Office
Wi-Fi networks are popping up in homes, coffee shops, hotels, airports, arenas, convention centers, courthouses and, increasingly, law offices.
As lawyers become accustomed to using smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices at home and on the road, many would also like to have the ability to access their favorite internet services in the office without running up wireless carrier bills or pairing with a wired desktop computer.
Law office managers and IT support staff have answered the pleas of legal professionals by deploying Wi-Fi networks. Unfortunately, as legions of frustrated users will readily testify, many of these systems are plagued by glacial speeds, dead zones, sudden disconnects, rejected connection requests, and various other service woes.
That's the bad news. The good news is that it's possible to create a fast, seamless and reliable Wi-Fi network without breaking the budget and wasting large amounts of time. All that's required is spending a little time, perhaps a few hours, with the in-house IT team or an outside contractor to plan a network that works as well as the office's existing wired network — perhaps even better — at an affordable price.
Compared to a lot of tech stuff, a Wi-Fi network isn't complex. A basic office set-up is simple: several wireless access points (APs) are placed around the planned coverage area and then linked to the office's wired network, which is connected to the internet. Add management software provided by the AP manufacturer or a third-party developer to control the system and the Wi-Fi network is ready to roll.
A variety of network hardware firms offer APs, including D-Link, Linksys and Netgear. For optimum performance, look for simultaneous dual-band APs that support both 5 GHz 802.11a radio signals as well as 2.4 GHz 802.11b/g/n signals. A simultaneous dual-band router provides extra flexibility and performance by creating two independent, dedicated networks.
A network that operates on two bands can handle more users and data. The 2.4 GHz band has been the standard Wi-Fi spectrum segment for many years, and virtually all recent wireless phones, tablets, and notebooks (including all 802.11b and 802.11g devices) run on it. Unfortunately, the band's popularity also makes it vulnerable to signal congestion and interference. The 5 GHz band, on the other hand, offers abundant interference-free space. A set of 23 non-overlapping channels (eight-times the number of 2.4GHz channels) allows users with compatible devices to access email, files, websites and other resources faster than 2.4 GHz, and with fewer interruptions. The 5 GHz band is particularly useful for running applications that demand high bandwidth, such as streaming video. Be aware, however, that 802.11a also has some shortcomings compared to 802.11b/g/n signals, including a smaller AP coverage range and greater difficulty penetrating walls and other solid objects.
Meanwhile, be sure the pay close attention to the emerging 802.11ac standard. Wi-Fi equipment manufacturers are starting to focus on 802.11ac in the much the same way that 802.11n was built into Wi-Fi devices long before the standard was officially ratified. Offering three times the speed of 802.11n, 802.11ac also provides twice the traffic capacity, allows the use of multiple antennas to increase AP coverage range and is backward compatible with 802.11a and 802.11n in the 5 GHz band.
Accurate AP placement is essential for creating a well-operating Wi-Fi system. Network dead spots and weak spots are typically created by installing too few APs or placing the units in poor locations. A typical indoor AP covers a radius of about 50 to 100 feet. Yet many factors can degrade AP performance, including low height, floor alcoves and wings, thick masonry walls (as opposed to drywall) and metallic surfaces (such as filing cabinets). If in doubt, remember that it's always better to install too many APs than too few. Besides providing enhanced coverage, overlapping APs are relatively cheap insurance against the possibility that one of the units may fail, creating a dead zone.
Wherever the APs are placed, they'll need to have a reliable power source. For APs installed in drop ceilings or other places without a convenient electrical outlet, power can be obtained via Power over Ethernet (PoE), which provides voltage to APs over standard copper network cabling. Most AP makers offers PoE-compatible models and support hardware.
All APs need to be linked to the wired network's backbone. If each AP happens to be located close to a network jack, connecting the units is simple and easy. If nearby jacks aren't available, the APs will have to be physically wired to the backbone via cable. This can be a complex and costly undertaking, particularly if there's no nearby cable available.
There is an alternate way. When using dual-band-capable APs, the 5 GHz signal can be used to wirelessly connect the devices to the office network while the 2.4 GHz signal remains available for users access. The downside to this approach is that the 5 GHz signal is used in client mode to interconnect APs to a host AP wired to the network and internet; it can no longer be used to directly access network and internet services.
Every Wi-Fi network needs to be secured against attackers and eavesdroppers as well as from scroungers who try to access unsecured networks to obtain free Internet service (a practice that can lead to potential liability headaches for the Wi-Fi network owner if the freeloader decides to use the system to vandalize websites or as a platform for launching internet attacks).
Using a solid and reliable encryption algorithm is the easiest and most reliable way of locking down a Wi-Fi network. APs offered by the major providers support at least three major encryption algorithms: WEP (now obsolete), WPA (not strong enough for law office use) and WPA2-Enterprise (recommended).
WPA-2 Enterprise requires each Wi-Fi user to have a unique username and password for logging onto the system rather than an easily defeated global passphrase. With WPA-2-Enterprise, an employee whose mobile device is stolen, or who retires or seeks employment elsewhere, poses no threat. The account can be secured simply by deleting it from the server or changing the password. WPA-2 Enterprise also keeps Wi-Fi network users from spying on colleagues' data traffic, capturing passwords or hijacking accounts, since encryption keys are exchanged invisibly and are unique to each user session. Understand, however, that deploying WPA2-Enterprise demands more than making a simple checkbox selection. The algorithm's implementation requires the installation of 802.1x authentication and a RADIUS server, which may require in-house expertise or a consultant.
An office Wi-Fi network is great for giving lawyers, support staff, clients, and guests fast access to the internet to retrieve email, update calendars, sync data via Dropbox and perform various other light-duty tasks. Yet Wi-Fi makes a generally poor platform for a full-fledged office network except, perhaps, for a very small office (five users or less).
Wireless technology wasn't designed to serve as the foundation for a large-scale business network and simply isn't up to the job of supporting large numbers of users simultaneously uploading and downloading massive amounts of data. Even if one were to build a Wi-Fi network with enough APs and backbone connections to support an entire office's full workload, the cost would compare unfavorably to the expense of running cable to all points in the office.
This article first appeared in Law Technology News, a Legal affiliate based in New York.
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