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Networking Basics: How to Build a WiFi Network for Small Businesses

A successful network helps your business prosper. It’s obvious that networking has become a decisive factor that can either make or break your career. In this highly interconnected world of today, it’s crucial to maintain a strong network of business connections for your company, foster the exchange of ideas to sustain long-term relationships and mutual trust with your employees and customers, and develop sustainable partnerships to help your business thrive. But network design is never easy, especially when constructing a commercially-purposed system. Don’t know how to start? Don’t know where to start? Read on! Our ultimate guide is to guide you through the basics of business networks and walk you through all the necessary processes to set up a business-grade WiFi network from scratch.

To begin with, let’s have a brief view of the importance of WiFi networks in small businesses.

The Importance of Networks Can Never Be Overestimated

The WiFi network is a crucial investment for businesses of all kinds to boost higher sales and drive higher levels of customer satisfaction. In today’s society, most jobs are accomplished before the desks. The Internet offers you a multitude of opportunities to do business with people around the world to sell your products, ideas and services through digital channels. A successfully set up network is a natural booster for productivity. Almost every industry today requires Internet access to get the job done. It allows an increased amount of users on your network and keeps your business running with a constantly operating system. Cloud-based apps and web-based tools make it possible to work and collaborate with your partners almost anywhere around the world. Resources and information can be exchanged and accessed more quickly to eliminate the financial loss caused by information delay. It helps improve team performance by providing your employees an Internal Website where they can find shared documents in one centralized location and collaborate with their peers on group projects. A well-organized network is important for companies of all sizes. You can enjoy complete control over every device on the network and put a stop to most security threats before they cause any damage. It gives your employees more freedom to work from anywhere in the office or building and still access the same network and devices.

Challenges of Building a Small-Business WiFi Network

Designing and maintaining a WiFi network for small businesses could be quite a challenge. Network designs and support strategies need to be adjusted to the needs and desires of those who are using the network. With the evolvement of office designs over years, small-business owners should rethink their network layouts as their businesses expand. Office redesigns may increase workflow efficiency and benefit your company as a whole, but without a proper network design to support all network devices and workstations, your employees will face more problems than you imagine. If your network is not robust or if it only features a limited capacity, it’ll soon become overloaded with the increasing influx of incoming traffic. In addition, a falsely placed network router could also jeopardize your network structure for incomplete WiFi coverage. However, designing your network for reliability and redundancy helps your business quickly recover from unexpected events and breakdowns to mitigate the financial loss caused by network downtime.

Network Design for Small Businesses

The network design would vary according to your office layout, bandwidth requirements, the number of devices connected, etc. To deliver the best possible experience to users, you have to put careful thought into your design, and keep in mind that simplicity and functionality should always be the guiding principles for designing a small office network. Network design is normally the job of IT professionals, but it’s never rocket science. By asking yourself the following questions, you’ll be able to set up a WiFi network on your own.

Question 1: What Type of Networks Do You Need?

There are various types of networking options available, and they can be classified according to their sizes (how large an area they can cover and how many devices they can carry) and purposes, such as Personal Area Network (PAN), Local Area Network (LAN) and Wide Area Network (WAN). PAN is a computer network centered around an individual for personal use only. It only provides a limited network within a person’s range typically of 10 meters to establish short-range communication between different devices like a computer, smartphone, tablet, printer, etc. It can be connected through wireless signals such as ZigBee and Bluetooth or through a wired connection via USB. It’s often applied in a home office where only one room needs to be covered. LAN is a group of computers and network devices that are connected in geographically limited areas such as offices, campuses and hospitals, in which multiple computers and other interconnected devices like printers are connected to a single high-speed data line within a limited area. It can carry more than 5000 devices across several buildings to deliver a higher speed compared with other network types with various media access control methods like Ethernet. You can easily transfer data and messages over networked computers and store the data in only one place which makes it more secure. On the other hand, WAN is another computer network that covers a larger geographical area, like in an enterprise, and it can also be deemed as a network that is consisted of multiple LAN networks. It can be used for any data-sharing purposes for which LAN is used. But for small businesses, WAN and LAN would be enough to fully carpet your offices.

Question 2: What Internet Speed is Required for Your Business?

A growing business needs a stable Internet connection since most of the job is done online, but what SMB owners don’t need is wasting money on something they’ll possibly never use, like the 10 Gigabit network. Evaluating how much speed you need is crucial to help your business run more smoothly and quickly in a more budget-friendly way. Factors that choosing business internet speeds vary from business to business but must be determined according to the number of devices in use and what tasks need to be done. The average business requires at least 25Mbps of download speed and 3Mbps of upload speed (the required network speed in a broadband connection) to complete daily tasks. 100Mbps is a good amount for a small company with no more than 10 users to do some simple tasks like sending emails, online browsing, downloading documents, etc. The speed required in this case is 1-2Mbps for each computer. 300Mps is more appropriate for a company with 15-20 users to accomplish business transactions, video streaming, and large-sized file/video generation. But if you have 30+ users or devices on your network, 1000Mbps is required to provide upload and download speeds of 940 and 880Mbps respectively to ensure steady workflow with zero interference. The Gigabit network can help you handle bandwidth-hungry applications and complicated tasks like streaming conference calls and running multimedia projects.

Question 3: Router & Switch, What’s the Difference?

When building a small office WiFi network, the two essential tools you’ll need is the router and network switch. Knowing the difference between these two devices will help you sort out lots of confusion you may have when choosing the right networking hardware. The router is normally equipped with 4-8 ports, but it supports both wired and wireless connections to give you more flexibility in access point placement and cabling arrangement. The network switch comes with more network ports (4/8/16/32/64) to connect more devices at a time, but it only supports wired Ethernet connections. In a router, the network speed is limited to 10/100Mbps for wireless broadcast and restricted to 10/100/1000Mbps for wired connections, but a switch can deliver a steady data connection at a speed of 10-1000Mbps. In a LAN network, the network switch is seemingly much faster than a router, but in a different network type like WAN, the router works faster, so it all depends on which type of network you’re using. The router can also be configured via a computer to customize the WiFi settings as you want, but the switch is not necessarily configurable: the router can offer QoS Services, while only the managed network switch support such services. Basically, if you have only a few devices on your network, a router may be a good choice for central control over your devices, but if you ask for more connections, then the network switch may be a better option.

Question 4: Wired or Wireless, Which is Better?

A wired connection is more reliable and efficient: it rarely runs into data loss and random outages. The wireless network features a simpler, quicker and cleaner setup, and it generally costs less than its wired counterpart since all you need is an Internet connection. You can save a lot without installing new cables or infrastructures. And you can easily relocate the devices because there are no cables at all, which gives you more flexibility on where to place the devices. But the wireless network, on the other hand, is more susceptible to interference and attenuation. Wireless signals can be easily impeded by physical obstructions like walls, doors, metal pipes, etc., so if your office is isolated by multiple walls, we’ll recommend you to stick with the wired Ethernet connection. A wired router can operate at higher speeds compared to a wireless one since the wired connection supports a higher speed ranging from 10/100 Mbps to 1 Gbps for each device and can even exceed that to reach 2.5G or more if a WiFi 6 router is in use, whereas a wireless router normally operates at 100-300Mbps. Moreover, a wired connection is also more secure but the setup is more expensive. You must run Ethernet cables between each device and the router/switch, which is also very time-consuming when devices are located in different rooms. Therefore, it would be better if you can mix them in the same network system. A hybrid network provides you with more freedom and mobility while maintaining a more stable network connection.

How to Set Up a Hybrid Network for Small Businesses?

The hybrid network is a combination of wired and wireless networks. It basically uses wireless access points as satellites to provide complete WiFi coverage for your premises and uses the wired connections as a backhaul. Moreover, to eliminate unnecessary cable running in your office, you can also take advantage of PoE to transmit the data and power through the same network cable. It’s also a good option to install the devices in places where it’ll be more challenging and expensive to install new electrical infrastructures, like ceilings.

Components You’ll Need:

• a router

• a PoE switch

• Ethernet cables

• Wired or Wireless Access Points

1) Router

The router is fundamental hardware for your business network to function flawlessly. It receives the information from the Internet (normally from a modem) and transfers the data packets through the Ethernet cable to the connected device. The network devices often use a network switch or PoE switch as an intermediary device for Internet connections. The WiFi router normally uses the radio frequencies of 900Mhz, 2.4Ghz, 5Ghz, 3.6Ghz and 10Ghz bands to provide Internet access for your smartphone, computer or other Internet-connected appliances. It provides a platform where different devices can communicate with each other.

2.4Ghz or 5Ghz?

If you want to get the best coverage from a router, you should choose 2.4Ghz over 5Ghz. Even though the 5Ghz router supports a faster network speed, it uses a narrower wavelength to broadcast the signals and it’s more susceptible to physical obstructions, which means it cannot penetrate the wall, door, or desk as well as the 2.4Ghz band does. Moreover, 2.4Ghz is better at delivering signals at a greater distance Also, if your neighbors are also using the 5Ghz band, changing your router’s channel will allow it to operate on a different frequency, clearing up the interference issue.

2) PoE Switch

PoE switch is a network switch that has Power over Ethernet functionality built into it. The most obvious advantage of using a PoE switch is that it offers great flexibility for installation and relocation in places where no power is present, which greatly improves the scalability of network architecture and reduces the costs of the initial investment. The PoE switch is hot-swappable, which makes it ultra user-friendly for average families and small and medium-sized businesses. An active PoE switch is equipped with auto-sensing PoE ports that automatically detect the compatibility of the connected devices to lower the chances of power outages, operation failures, etc., and prevent irreversible electrical damages caused to the PDs. The PoE switch is widely used in different scenarios, from home to office, industry to neighborhood, indoors and outdoors, etc.

PoE Switch vs Network Switch

The primary difference between a PoE switch and a network switch is that the latter only supports data transmission, so an additional power source is demanded to power the edge devices, while the PoE switch can send power and data together down the same Ethernet cable to the PDs. By using a PoE switch, you can mix PoE and non-PoE devices in the same network, while the regular switch fails to do so on its own. However, the regular switch can become PoE-enabled when connected to a PoE injector to add electrical power to the PDs.

Advantages of Using PoE switches:

• Reduced costs: An all-in-one unit that transmits power and data at the same time.

• Greater flexibility: The PoE switch can be deployed basically anywhere and makes it easy to add new network equipment to the existing network.

• Centralized power control and monitor: The PoE switch secures better power management and allocation by optimizing the traffic on each Ethernet port. The LED displays also provide the users with real-time power information to leverage the benefits of PoE.

Managed or Unmanaged PoE Switch?

PoE switches can be roughly divided into managed or unmanaged switches according to their management. The unmanaged PoE switch is a relatively simple plug-and-play device that can’t be modified or managed. The unmanaged switches are normally manufactured with a fixed configuration and with merely no security features. It’s a more cost-effective option normally used in local networks where only several devices are deployed. The managed PoE switch offers full management capabilities and high-level security features that allow you to prioritize and monitor the traffic coming out of each PoE port and facilitate troubleshooting. It allows users to create new VLANs and guarantees fast data recovery in network failures. The managed PoE switch is equipped with advanced security features that help avoid direct tampering on the device, ideal for applications in remote control, round-the-clock monitoring and smart buildings.

3) Access Points

The access point is a piece of networking device that connects your wireless devices to your wired network. According to its connection methods, it can be further divided into wired and wireless access points. The wired access point has to be hardwired to a router to get an Internet connection, but a wireless access point can receive the signals wirelessly and rebroadcast them to the Internet-capable devices. But when using a PoE switch, it’s highly recommended to use the wired access points for higher levels of reliability. The access points can also be used to extend the WiFi coverage of an existing network and cover the dead spots in your offices. The access point works very similarly to an amplifier but not just extending WiFi. It takes the bandwidth from the router and projects the signals to the designated area, to an extended distance.

Placement Recommendations

The access points can cover up to 200-300 meters but the real coverage depends largely on the placement. Once you have a good idea of your network plan, you need to start evaluating the signal strength of the place you need to cover and test it with your phone or a WiFi analyzer. Any signal strength between -67 and -30 dBm is quite enough, but once it’s lower than -70 dBm, their performance will start to degrade. Based on the shape of your office, floor plan and layout, the location of the access point could vary, but to ensure you have strong WiFi signals everywhere, the APs should be placed in an open and unobstructed place. In other words, they should be placed right in the center of an open workspace. And since the wireless signals can be easily impeded by physical obstructions, you should avoid placing the APs in the closet or behind solid metal objects. And to deliver better performance, they should be mounted below the ceiling with the cables running above, so the signals won’t be affected by any surrounding cables or other construction elements.

4) Ethernet Cables

Ethernet cables are the key to connecting everything together. Unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cables are one of the most commonly used network cables in SMBs. It’s highly recommended to use Cat5 or Cat5e Ethernet cables to connect the access points to the PoE switch and each other to secure a high-speed data transfer between the computers. Normally, the Cat5 Ethernet cable is capable of transmitting data at speeds of up to 100Mbps, while the Cat5e cable is often utilized in networks that run on Gigabit network speeds and typically costs less than Cat6 or Cat7 cables. And you should use pure copper cables for best which has a greater conductivity, while the CCA cable would generate more DC resistance and therefore create greater power loss.

Tips for cable management: Even in a small office, you’ll need to run tons of cables, which will gradually become a mess and tangle up over time. To manage your cables, you can use a patch panel to organize your cables and label them with different tapes. Moreover, you can use zip ties to bundle cables together to keep them neat and organized.

How to Connect?

1) Use a short Ethernet cable to connect one of the LAN ports of the router and the uplink port of the PoE switch. Plug the router into the nearby power outlet.

2) Power up the PoE switch and use a long Ethernet cable to connect the switch and access points. For units that are not PoE-enabled, you can use a PoE splitter to separate data and power into two different streams and feed them to the non-PoE APs.

3) After the connection is completed, test if the signal is strong enough.

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