How to Optimize Public WiFi Deployments

Group of young people sitting at a cafe, top view

In major urban centers across North America, finding a public WiFi signal is about as easy as finding a Starbucks; which, actually offers WiFi service to its patrons at no additional cost. This partnership makes sense when you consider 75% of people say one week without WiFi would leave them grumpier than one week without coffee — why not serve both in the same place?

It’s evident that providing WiFi connections in public settings is a vital piece in the complicated connected puzzle known as subscriber quality of experience (QoE), but are service providers meeting their customers’ WiFi demands?

Public WiFi in cafes, hotels, and especially airplanes are commonly reviewed as spotty and unreliable, often damaging the reputation of the service provider. In one recent case, American Airlines received so many complaints about bad in-flight WiFi service that the company sued its WiFi provider. So how can you avoid the pitfalls of bad WiFi service?

Gain Intelligence at the Edge

Optimizing your WiFi deployment, be it public or private, starts with understanding the wireless environment, and leveraging that intelligence and known topology at the edge to best deploy your WiFi connection. Modern access points provide a wealth of information to diagnose and contribute to choosing optimal settings for the WiFi deployment using traditional SNMP or push mechanisms such as TR-069.

Broadband forum standard TR-069 gives the ability to identify attributes such as multiple BSSIDs and network names, including number of radios; spectrum utilization (including power indication, retransmission errors, and number packets sent/received/dropped); clear channel assessment; as well as settings such as encryption, security, and standards used. This provides the operator with a lot of information to start their public deployment. Getting a better picture requires a further look into any competing access points (APs), exposing information related to other BSSIDs, channels, power levels, and signal strengths.

This is where you can start to get a clear picture of whether there is a potential problem and how to avoid it.

Deploy in the Right Spectrum

This challenge is usually quite simple, right? Just bind to the channel with the least interference. Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy — particularly in built-up areas where there are multiple competing WiFi and other signals. So how can you gain visibility into neighbouring conditions for that moment in time?

Earlier we mentioned that modern access points provide a great deal of intelligence at the edge; some can even provide a neighbourhood site survey, listing all the surrounding access points, the channel, the signal strength, etc. This data is often used by the gateway itself to choose an optimal setting (Auto), but this is typically only determined during the bootup of the gateway. How often are gateways restarted and is there a better way to gain this information?

Looking at TR-069, you can see the spectrum congestion remotely and even dynamically adjust the channel the AP is operating on without requiring a reboot. This intelligence can be extended into self-care options, which would use this business intelligence to automatically optimize the settings in the WiFi network. If competing public WiFi hotspots are operating only in a 2.4Ghz space and the spectrum is heavily congested then it might be worthwhile deploying a dual-band AP to improve your customers’ experiences, examine the physical installation, or deploy WiFi extenders. For complex environments, this data can be used during the installation to best determine locations for gateways and repeaters.

Making Intelligent Decisions with Gateway Analysis

Dive deep into the public gateway to get a wealth of data that identifies usage patterns and monitors QoE; critical data for customer service representatives (CSRs) when fielding a support call related to slow connections over WiFi. There are many other attributes that can be gleaned from vendor-specific extensions to improve the granularity of the WiFi picture and topology at the public WiFi hotspot. Taking this ephemeral data and putting it in a data warehouse enables the operator to actively mine key statistics for proactive care purposes and network-wide key performance indicator (KPI) metrics with trended patterns. These are essential tools for the operator to deliver optimal service and to take that data and determine where there are areas of oversubscription, low negotiated speeds, and gateways that are power cycling or who are routinely offline.

Maintain a Healthy Network

Insight at the network edge is one contributor to the overall QoE, however if the uplink between the access point and the service provider is poor, it’s akin to taking a photocopy of a photocopy. You can never get better than the original. TR-069 can be used to manage the device settings, but importantly, it can also be used to monitor and report on the uplink to the service provider.

TR-069 covers more than just WiFi-related settings. In a DSL environment a gateway typically can share a wealth of information for troubleshooting or proactive care scenarios. For example, the TR-181 data model exposes many attributes for the DSL Quality Management (DQM) suite, specifically for delivering higher speeds and enhancing service delivery including current upstream and downstream rate, link retrain, and errors. The DQM suite incorporates techniques to help service providers measure line performance, status, and test data, in addition to other data to measure throughput and diagnose line functions. This can then provide steps that the service provider can take to curtail new problems from arising or improve performance.

Similarly in the cable world, attributes such as micro-reflections, QAM settings, and radio frequency to receive and transmit signal strength can easily be accessed via SNMP or vendor specific extensions in TR-069.

Imagine being able to not only share this data to an advanced CSR but also report network-wide on outliers who are experiencing a high percentage of network errors. Then taking action on any errors or outliers by setting up automated business rules to programatically or manually address issues before they affect subscriber service quality.

Leverage Self-Organizing WiFi Networks

Beyond signal quality and CSR insight, the data available through TR-069 provides an operator with valuable business intelligence that can be leveraged to programmatically adjust channel settings and radio power levels to provide optimal settings over a shared spectrum. With automated business rules in an Auto Configuration Server (ACS), you can improve customer experiences and maintain your brand. Some of these rules may be as simple as ensuring the AP password is strong and changed every 12 months or enforcing no open/unprotected WiFi networks.

In a recent report by Incognito, 40% of respondents felt that better WiFi hotspot coverage would be the most appreciated service option to add on to their existing plans — proving that public WiFi is one of the most valuable service add-ons you can give to your subscribers.

The question is — are you making sure that your public WiFi hotspots are optimized?

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