What is the best WiFi for Coworking spaces?

There were periods of The Skiff’s history where access to the Internet from The Skiff was a running joke. We had members leave the space because it would occasionally become unusable for them. As one of the bare essentials for the vast majority of our coworkers this was inexcusable. It distracted us for months as we tried to create a network that we could all depend upon.

There were periods of The Skiff’s history where access to the Internet from The Skiff was a running joke. We had members leave the space because it would occasionally become unusable for them. As one of the bare essentials for the vast majority of our coworkers this was inexcusable. It distracted us for months as we tried to create a network that we could all depend upon.

Six years in I can now say confidently that we’ve created the network we were dreaming of. We’ve had just two problems in the last year. Each was solved by nothing more than simply turning a few devices on and off again. Here are the three components of a great office network:

1) The Internet Connection

As we’ve grown we’ve been through every kind Internet connection available in Brighton. Upgrading to the best we could afford as revenue increased, it currently accounts for almost 10% of our total monthly expenditure. It’s our third biggest cost after rent and taxes. We currently have a 50mbps leased line which provides a fibre optic connection from our premises directly into one of the Internet’s main exchanges in London.

50mbps doesn’t sound as fast as the 76mbps download speeds advertised for BT Infinity or 152mbps advertised by Virgin Media. But download speed is not the most important thing in a coworking space. Our Internet connection is about 50 times better than standard business broadband because:

  1.  No part of our connection to the Internet is shared with other businesses and homes in the area or other customers of our ISP. This means it can happily support hundreds of people in our space using it simultaneously. 
  2.  The line provides 50mbps upload speed to match the download speed. BT Infinity provides an average of 17.4mbps upload for its best package and Virgin Media 14.3mbps. If you’re a digital creative business the upload speed is probably more important to you than the download speed. 
  3.  There are no download caps, upload caps or any other kind of limitations for our ISP to surprise us with. 
  4.  The line is taken as seriously as it would for a multi-million pound business with direct access to technical support and a 4 hour onsite response time in the case of failures. In a worst case scenario there is a failover to a traditional broadband connection which is independent of the leased line. 
So that’s the Internet connection solved but it still wasn’t enough to provide everyone in our space with a great experience. We needed local network that was fit to serve hundreds of members.

2) The Local Network

Our first network consisted of a single ADSL router with built-in WiFi that came free from our ISP. It could just about handle 10 devices comfortably. The more people that used the space, the more often we had to reboot it. The poor thing wasn’t very good at any of the three things it was trying to do.

We invested a few hundred pounds and upgraded to a small business-class Draytek Vigor 2830 to replace it and we were able to handle 30 to 40 devices comfortably. It still needed regular reboots, especially during large events where lots of devices were trying to get on the network at once. What we really needed to do was separate the jobs the router was doing.

The Internet connection was switched to another piece of hardware when we changed ISP and then we shifted the WiFi to dedicated access points. This freed up enough resources for it to support a network with 60 devices but beyond that things got really painful. The equipment wasn’t really much beyond consumer grade so it was hard to work out what was causing the problems.

We were lucky enough to have the team of Comms Intelligence within our membership and they rose to the challenge by volunteering their time to help. They found a commercial grade router that was within our budget and took on the task of configuring it. This gave us peace of mind that we had a network capable of supporting hundreds of devices.

Buying, configuring and maintaining a router capable of serving a commercial grade network with hundreds of devices is super complicated. I’m yet to find a way around calling in the experts when it comes to this stuff. I recommend you find some friendly network engineers in in your town or budget a few thousand pounds just for this.

If you’re in the UK I can’t recommend Comms Intelligence enough. They’ve graduated from The Skiff’s coworking space after being some of our most supportive resident members for the last 4 years. They probably understand coworking better than any other network engineers.

Once we had our commercial grade router up and running alongside our fibre optic leased line we were able to grow past 80 devices per day without any periodical router reboots. Around half the desks in the space had a wired connection which provided a flawless experience no matter how many devices were in the building.

It quickly became clear that we were at the limits of what our WiFi network could handle.

3) The Wireless Network

If you thought Internet connections and local network connections were complicated, beyond a handful of users the complexities of WiFi will blow your mind. I spent about ten times longer getting my head around this than I have Internet connections and local network configurations. I won’t bore you with all the details but here are a few lowlights:

  1. Like good routers, the best WiFi access points are complex to configure and you might need assistance from a network engineer.
  2. There is conflicting advice about how to name wireless networks when you have multiple access points.
  3. There is conflicting advice about what channels to use and how much power to set them to.
  4. The architecture and materials used in your building need to be considered.
  5. Your neighbours WiFi configuration often makes recommended configurations ineffective.
  6. Non-WiFi radio devices operating nearby can cause interference.
  7. Other kinds of devices like microwaves and even fridges and coffee machines can interfere with WiFi signals.
  8. Even once you’ve found a configuration that works changes in your environment, things in 4, 5, 6 & 7 above can create problems in future.
  9. Despite there being internationally recognised WiFi standards they are interpreted slightly differently by different vendors. Some brands and models of laptop / phone / tablet don’t get on with some brands and models of WiFi hardware.
To make matters even worse, many of these problems only manifest themselves when a certain combination of devices are on your network. It is an absolute nightmare.

The best network engineers will often refer you to wireless specialists for anything beyond the simplest of offices. No one can make guarantees about how well your wireless network will perform if you have a limited budget.

Up until very recently there were three common options for solving the WiFi problem.

  • Get an enterprise grade solution from a vendor like Cisco with hardware and installation costs totalling tens of thousands of pounds.
  • Get a professional site survey and installation from a company that configures better value but widely respected Ruckus hardware for around five thousand pounds.
  • Try and source some Ruckus hardware cheaply and do the installation and configuration yourself for around a one to two thousand pounds.
We were very fortunate to have a Ruckus access point donated to us by friend of The Skiff Stefan Pause who had heard our pain from afar. It took me about an hour to get it working and it provided some much needed relief alongside the four consumer grade access points we had at the time. Sadly it wasn’t enough to replace them all and I wasn’t sure of the best way to configure it with other access points without also investing time and money in a controller.

Around the same time as adding the Ruckus I heard about the new range of UniFi Access Points (http://www.ubnt.com/unifi/unifi-ap/). The marketing seemed too good to be true. “Affordable Enterprise Wireless” and free controller software that looked like a delight to use. I was worried about the idea of having to maintain a server for the controller software but learned that the access points didn’t depend on it once they were up and running. I asked around and it turned out that our friends at Cohub in Eastbourne had been using them for a few months and they were living up to expectations. I was convinced.

Then came the agonising wait for them to come back into stock in the UK (three months at the time). I ordered two three packs of the Unifi AP Pros for around £1,000 and had them up and running within 15 minutes of unboxing them. They just worked. They didn’t need any specialist configuration, just a name for the network and a password. I followed the instructions to connect each access point to the controller (initially my personal laptop) and that was it.

The Unifi access points adapt to the environment to choose the most effective channels and power levels to avoid interfering with each other. It turned out six of them was a bit overkill for us, three would have probably been fine. I now keep one disconnected as a spare. It’s a great feeling knowing that next time we hit a limit (probably at around 200 devices) all we’ll need to do is spend a few minutes adding more relatively inexpensive access points.

I recently upgraded the firmware and installed the controller on a remote server so that it is always on. I now get an easy to navigate live view that I can access via a web browser from anywhere. It shows how busy different parts of the space are and how much bandwidth is being used. Members get an enhanced experience when they move between access points. They can now start a Skype call at their desk and move to a meeting room without any problems. Setting this up was a bit more involved than the standard configuration, I had to draw upon some of my latent linux sysadmin skills. Don’t worry if that’s not your thing, a few companies are starting to pop up that offer a low cost hosted controller service so you don’t have to do it yourself.

Earlier this month we had our busiest day on record with 116 WiFi devices and 60GB of traffic over the air. I didn’t hear a single “is the Internet slow for you” comment and I’m now struggling to remember the last time that came up at all.

There's more on this in this Wireless thread on the Coworking Google Group. Please contribute there if you have anything to add.

Getting WiFi right is just one of the lessons I've learned the hard way while growing coworking communities. It shouldn’t take you six years and 600 coworkers to learn the rest of them. Tell me where to send you more tips and tricks for improving your work space.