How To Build an Affordable Wi-Fi Network for Your Small Business

Good news: your business is expanding. Though it initially consisted of three people working from their homes, your company now has 15 employees sharing 5,000 square feet of office space. To keep them connected, you could spend thousands hiring an IT consultant and a construction crew to string Ethernet cables through the ceiling and floorboards, or you could set up a simple wireless network using your own tech savvy and some inexpensive equipment. Better still, your employees will be able to share printers, files, and an Internet connection without being chained to their desks.

Choosing an Internet Connection

The first thing an office network requires is an Internet connection. You’ll need to do your homework and find out what providers offer broadband service in your building, as well as their different plan options. In some cases, you may have only one provider available. In others, you may be able to choose between DSL, cable, fiber optic, and T1-based Internet providers. Though T1 lines typically provide better upload speeds, the technology you choose isn’t as important as the amount of bandwidth your ISP guarantees, and the level of service it provides.

Purchase bandwidth based on your employees’ job functions and work habits. If they primarily use e-mail and surf the web, then download speeds don’t need to be blazing. “I would say 100 Kbps per user or so,” said Ian Jelinek, manager of technology services at the Fund for the City of New York. With 30 users, that’s 3-Mbps downloads.” However, if you have employees who do a lot of work in the cloud or send large files, you’ll need to make sure upload speeds are equal or close to your download bandwidth. T1 lines, which are more expensive than cable or DSL, usually offer better upload speeds.

The Router: Your First Line of Sharing

The days of giant closets filled with wires and switches are over for small businesses (or at least they should be). While an enterprise-level business may have lots of separate switches, you can easily support more than 30 simultaneous users with a small business–class wireless router.

When choosing a router, look for one that uses 802.11n technology for maximum speed and range, has built-in firewall, and supports at least WPA encryption. In addition, ensure that the router allows enough virtual private network (VPN) connections so that all your employees can access network resources from the road. An affordable choice for small offices is the Cisco RV 120W ($139; www.cisco.com), which has 802.11n, an SP1 firewall, and support for up to 10 simultaneous VPN connections, and 1,000 concurrent sessions or data requests.

Place the router right next to your Internet line so you can connect it directly. Next you’ll want to set up network encryption, using the highest possible standard. If your notebooks were purchased in the last few years, they probably all support 128-bit WPA2 with AES encryption, the best common standard.

Forgo the temptation to leave your wireless network unsecured, as hackers or your neighbors could steal bandwidth and your most sensitive data. Avoid the outdated WEP encryption, which is almost as bad as having no security at all. “I wish WEP was no longer even an option,” said Joe Melfi, D-Link’s associate director of business solutions. “It’s still put into a lot of products for backward compatibility. Because it’s easier to configure, people will turn on WEP, it takes a nanosecond to break it. There are programs out there that will do that in a heartbeat.”

Use a strong password of at least seven characters with mixed-case letters and numbers; utilize special characters if possible. If you set a single English-language word as a password, you will be vulnerable to dictionary attacks, where a hacker uses a program that feeds in words from the dictionary as passwords over and over again until he gains access to your network.

To keep employees from mistaking your network for another one in the building, change the router’s SSID to something memorable. Nothing screams amateur hour more than a router broadcasting the name “D-Link” or “Linksys.”

Testing and Expanding Your Signal

Unless your office consists of a single tiny room, you will probably have a few dead spots. Test your connectivity by walking around the office with a laptop, stopping in several locations, looking at the number of bars, and attempting to surf the web from those spots. You can also use the utility Netperf (free; www.netperf.org) to get an exact throughput rate between your test notebook and another connected directly to the router. If you have fewer than three bars in an important location, you can’t hold a connection from that area, or you just need better throughput, there are several things you can do to improve signal strength.

Perhaps the best option is to purchase wireless access points such as the D-Link DAP-1522 ($54.99; www.dlink.com) or the TrendNet TEW-637AP ($43.99; www.trendnet.com) and strategically place them in areas of the office that have weak or no signal coverage. To connect wireless access points back to the router, you can use a powerline networking kit such as the TrendNet TPL-303E2K ($79.99) or the Netgear XAVB101-100NAS ($105; www.netgear.com), which allows you to send data over the office’s electrical system, rather than stringing Ethernet cable. You can even connect a wired switch to a powerline module, so a group of users who need even better connectivity can plug into the network via Ethernet.

A wireless network extender could help as well, but it might not be worth the cost savings. Rather than connecting to the network via a powerline or Ethernet wire, extenders simply catch the existing Wi-Fi signal and rebroadcast it. You need to place an extender in a location that is close to the weak zone you’re targeting but still within an area where the signal is strong. However, because they connect to the router wirelessly, and because these devices transmit and receive signals simultaneously, wireless extenders don’t provide as much throughput as wireless access points. “Half the time it receives, and half the time it transmits,” said D-Link’s Melfi. “You’re still better off [than having nothing], but the side effect is that your overall throughput is a little slower.”

How To Build an Affordable Wi-Fi Network for Your Small Business

AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. Tim Says:

    What would be the most cost effective option to install wi-fi into a small coffee house to serve customers?
    How much would a service like this cost??

  2. Anna Attkisson, LAPTOP Managing Editor Says:

    That will likely depend on your service provider. You can pick up a decent router for between $50 and $75. The monthly cost would come from Time Warner Cable or Comcast, or from whomever you get your cable.

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