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Why W-Fi Roaming Issues Happen — and How Mobile Eye® Spots Them

Moving throughout a wireless coverage area can create performance and connectivity issues, and endpoint visibility is needed to ID them

Key takeaways:

  • Roaming presents challenges because clients decide when they will change access points (APs), and many devices aren’t well-designed for mobility.
  • “Sticky” clients cling to a distant AP instead of seamlessly switching to a closer one, degrading performance. 
  • Enterprises don’t have visibility into how clients roam with traditional network infrastructure monitoring tools.
  • Mobile Eye® from 7SIGNAL shows what a client is doing moment to moment, identifying roaming problems and enabling solutions.

Roaming issues can create big connectivity headaches, especially in large enterprises with extensive coverage areas. A device cannot truly be mobile unless it can seamlessly maintain its Wi-Fi connection as it moves throughout a space. And mobility is crucial for big offices, hospitals, universities, manufacturing floors, and other settings where on-the-go activities rely on consistent connectivity.

Let’s review why Wi-Fi roaming issues happen and how 7SIGNAL’s Mobile Eye® provides the insights necessary to address them.

A rundown of roaming challenges

Unfortunately, typical enterprises are flooded with devices that don’t roam well. In particular, consumer-grade and Internet of Things (IoT) equipment lacks this performance. 

Consumer IoT devices are often built as cheaply as possible, and manufacturers don’t prioritize seamless mobile connectivity. These clients aren’t sufficiently tested to see how well they’ll do while roaming—it’s just assumed that since they have Wi-Fi capabilities and there’s a network, everything will work. Often, this assumption doesn’t hold up in the real world. 

Compounding this challenge is that IT staff frequently lack visibility into how mobile devices experience a connection. They can’t see how a client roams if they only have standard tools built into enterprise WLANs that only provide infrastructure-side assessments. 

The crucial point is that roaming is a client-side problem—it’s the client that decides when it roams from access point (AP) to access point, not an AP. So, even if the network design and infrastructure are adequate and signal strength is high everywhere, roaming issues can still happen.

What does good versus bad Wi-Fi roaming look like?

So, how is roaming supposed to work? Say a connected client is moving around a network area. As the device gets closer to new APs and moves through the space, it makes new associations. It joins the next AP and drops the former. This process is invisible to the end-user in an ideal scenario, and the connection is never impaired or lost. Performance is maintained, and there's very little packet loss. No one even thinks about it. 

That may be an ideal scenario, but it’s certainly not an uncommon or unreasonable one. Devices should be able to roam and work properly, especially for mission-critical operations, whether in hospitals, offices, manufacturing facilities, or anywhere else.

Bad Wi-Fi roaming happens when a client gets “stuck” and doesn’t connect to a closer AP as it moves through the area. The mobile device continues with the initial AP, even though it gets further and further away. The data rate drops significantly, packet loss builds up, and Wi-Fi performance becomes so poor that applications are disrupted.

The device will eventually get too far away from the AP and drop it, followed by restarting its network stack and connecting to a neighboring AP. But in the meantime, the end-user has experienced bad Wi-Fi while moving through the coverage area.

The first aspect of solving this problem is identifying these “sticky” clients and their poor roaming decisions. Unfortunately, there are no standard roaming algorithms diverse clients use to make these decisions. Even devices certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance can have issues, as the organization doesn’t test enterprise roaming performance. 

To sum things up: clients automatically decide which APs they connect to — and many of them simply aren’t designed well for mobility.

How the Mobile Eye helps with roaming

Again, there aren’t ways to tell if clients are roaming well from the infrastructure/AP side of the equation; standard infrastructure monitoring tools and metrics don’t provide these insights. But 7SIGNAL’s Mobile Eye does

This software agent runs directly on clients, including Windows, macOS, and Android. It continually and specifically tracks roaming performance — not just what the AP ‘hears’ but what the client ‘hears’ — along with hundreds of other KPIs that inform solutions to many other issues.

Mobile Eye is vendor-agnostic, very easy to install (even in large quantities), and it presents data and reporting in the cloud for easy analysis. The dashboard immediately displays what kind of Wi-Fi problems are happening with a device at a given moment. You can also see the time an issue occurred, the severity of the problem, and the specific AP where roaming was an issue. You’ll know which clients became sticky — when and where.

This visibility allows network managers to identify sticky clients and address them with solutions, such as updating wireless drivers on the clients, configuring the driver settings, upgrading the equipment, or identifying design challenges with specific AP placements.

Learn more about 7SIGNAL’s Mobile Eye®, and try this quick online assessment from IDC to see the possible value of wireless network monitoring for your organization. 

7SIGNAL® is the leader in wireless experience monitoring, providing insight into wireless networks and control over Wi-Fi performance so businesses and organizations can thrive. Our cloud-based wireless network monitoring platform continually tests and measures Wi-Fi performance at the edges of the network, enabling fast solutions to digital experience issues and stronger connections for mission-critical users, devices, and applications. Learn more at www.7signal.com.