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WLAN Best Practices Series: Enterprise WLAN in a Time of Changing Client Culture

How has Wi-Fi culture changed in recent years? The emergence of new devices and user demands have made things more challenging for the enterprise WLAN.

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Everything evolves, often for the better, sometimes not, and usually in a mix of the two. And in the world of Wi-Fi, much has changed in recent years. Many of these developments reflect an overall culture shift. End-user sentiments and priorities have altered wireless and been altered in light of how the technology is widely used. 

Wireless has also evolved very differently than ethernet, a more controlled and much tighter technology; you just plug in a wire, and you’re not dealing with extremely diverse devices and security barriers. The equipment wants to connect to the network and doesn’t need much care.

Wireless has become a very different beast — from both its hard-wired alternative and what it once was. As a result, there's a lot of room for nuance, imagination, innovation, and frustration in WLAN management. 

Let’s talk about how Wi-Fi has evolved, what end users are like today, and how these changes impact enterprise WLANs. 

Looking back on Wi-Fi’s evolution

When wireless technology first came onto the scene, it looked very different. Here are some key characteristics of the early technology as described by Lee Badman, a Certified Wireless Network Engineer (CWNE) with over 25 years of networking experience:

  • Wi-Fi used to be valued; it wasn’t taken for granted and was often considered an expensive add-on. The technology wasn’t as universal or commoditized as it is today. 
  • Wireless policies used to be more enforceable as long as they were written correctly and approved by the right people. But today, more people do what they shouldn’t be doing on Wi-Fi.
  • Users were more motivated to follow policy on a central WLAN. Wi-Fi managers had a greater ability to influence behavior with procedures and active management.
  • There weren’t nearly as many client device types as there are now.
  • There weren’t many connection alternatives. You’d go to a location and get what they put out for wireless or nothing else. You either used it according to their rules, or you didn’t use it. 

All these dynamics changed once Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies became much more inexpensive for average users. Now, anyone can do most anything they want online affordably. And some of the most technically illiterate people can get wireless going without any help. 

A slew of device types also came along; an incredible amount of equipment now has a wireless adapter. This created an influx of new approaches to how devices are used, Wi-Fi policies, and more.

Additionally, today’s users aren’t as interested in following wireless rules. Instead, many either ignore or make them up as they go, and many of these sentiments stem from a lack of understanding about why Wi-Fi policies exist.

The challenges for enterprise WLANs

People today have a host of wireless devices they use in their homes and other places outside of work. The resulting challenge for enterprise networks is that individuals want to use all those connected devices at work. For instance, someone may want to use their Chromecast on the enterprise network just like they do in their living room.

Unfortunately, some of these devices and applications don’t work easily on an enterprise network, even though users expect them to. This dynamic can create a very real, ROI-intensive problem for many organizations: you could realistically spend five figures to make one $20 home gadget to work on the enterprise WLAN. 

Another expensive issue is enterprise network security. Many consumer and IoT devices simply aren’t designed to operate on an enterprise network while meeting all the security requirements. When they connect, the resulting risks can lead to a compromised network or expensive efforts to accommodate these devices securely.

Finally, manufacturers haven’t quite caught up with how to make their devices work well on an enterprise-level network. For example, device makers often respond to reported problems with unhelpful instructions like:

  • Just give the device a spare Wi-Fi channel.
  • Just give us our own virtual LAN.
  • Just give it its own SSID.

In addition, many manufacturers don’t even know what 802.1X is and which enterprise networks use to authenticate end users.

How unlimited data plays a role

A big driver of changing Wi-Fi attitudes is the introduction of unlimited cellular data plans. WLANs are seen differently when everyone has endless data on their smartphones. These types of plans have been commoditized and are now very affordable. Despite this, guest Wi-Fi connectivity is still widely used by smartphone users. It works better indoors and conserves battery life.

People can also use their hotspots wherever they go. They have their own internet connectivity in their pocket and don’t have to worry about extra costs. And while this is a good thing overall, the trend has many unfortunate implications for enterprise Wi-Fi.

Hotspots can interfere with enterprise APs, they tend to be louder, and they’re multiplying. All that new interference is creating a real mess in many enterprise networks.

How a culture of access has changed the enterprise game

All the above factors mean users will get to the internet at all costs. They'll find a way if they can’t do something on a network. 

People are also more likely to blame the WLAN (and those managing it) if something goes wrong with an incompatible connection or device. And unfortunately, many users aren't aware that these devices or alternative connections may create problems for the WLAN and other users.

Here are some additional examples of culture changes:

  • In the early days of wireless, most users would ask for the network Wi-Fi password to connect. Now, they don’t necessarily need your Wi-Fi at all.
  • Instead of asking for troubleshooting help for connectivity issues, users tend to assume the network is bad and use their own connections.
  • Users now want to employ their chosen device without considering if it’s appropriate for the WLAN.
  • Users are not as willing to comply with policy.

When people expect to be able to connect anywhere, anytime, from any device, it's hard to get them to care about network policy, potential issues with their devices, or their impact on the network and other users’ experiences.

What can enterprise WLAN managers do about it?

While there aren’t any black-and-white answers to these issues, you can still take action and try to improve your organization’s Wi-Fi culture. Here are a few tips:

  • Do what you can to keep the peace; after all, it’s still people dealing with people. Focus on accommodating users where you can while emphasizing education about WLAN technology.
  • Recognize the devices that are a better fit for ethernet, and guide clients to use that technology for improved performance.
  • Wireless experience monitoring is crucial, giving organizations constant visibility and clarity about what’s happening in increasingly complex Wi-Fi environments. 
  • Live with what you can’t control — but do everything possible to educate users on policies and the potential collateral damage of violating them.

Visibility is essential to tackling modern WLAN challenges

The messier the wireless environment gets, the more you need valuable, actionable, and accurate insights about what’s going on in your network. You must be able to see problems that arise in meaningful ways and in real-time to know what’s causing issues and how to respond.

7SIGNAL’s wireless experience monitoring platform helps your team see what’s happening 24/7. With the help of our Mobile Eye™ and Sapphire Eye™ platforms, you’ll always have a grasp on how the end users experience the Wi-Fi — and how to address issues with intelligent solutions.

Contact 7SIGNAL today to learn more.

7SIGNAL® is a leader in enterprise cloud Wi-Fi performance management. Founded by wireless networking pioneers, the company delivers applications that continuously monitor the stability of its clients' Wi-Fi networks in order to mitigate risk. The 7SIGNAL platform is designed for the world's most innovative organizations, educational institutions, hospitals and government agencies and are currently deployed at IBM, Kaiser Permanente, Nike and other Fortune 500 companies. 7SIGNAL continuously monitors the connectivity of an estimated 20 million global devices. Learn more at www.7signal.com