Putting WiFi into HMOs

Putting WiFi into HMOs

Why WiFi is so important to tenants

Having spent 20 years working in IT and being involved in many large and complex WiFi installations I thought I would share what I see wrong in WiFi installations in HMOs and what to do about it.

For tenants, WiFi is more important than hot water in HMOs ( well ok on par), and having left the military 20 years ago, cold showers are definitely a thing of the past for me, but I think I’d still prefer an ice bath to a life without a good internet connection!

Typically I see WiFi introduction is an afterthought from landlords who offer HMO’s. It is often only thought about after the decoration is done. Internet providers will always provide the equipment to the most convenient ingress point for them which never normally coincides with your ideal area.

So a WiFI router then ends up stuck in the corner of one of the bedrooms and that is where the problem starts.

The next thing you know is that you start getting calls from tenants complaining Netflix/catch-up TV is buffering and the internet is rubbish. The typical result is landlords try unsuccessfully changing channels on the router broadcast, give up and go down to PC World. They speak to a salesperson and buy booster devices for around £20-£30.

Most of these devices are, and I am going to use a technical term here, “PANTS”. They rely on WiFi being relayed onto another device via WiFi and then is retransmitting WiFi – nothing paradoxical in that right? They then clash with each other or with the neighbour’s WiFi or leave blind spots the result is more discontent from tenants. Quite often these type of devices can actually make the problem worse and really, they should not be used. All the while this process is ongoing –
tenants are not getting their Facebook content or their Amazon Prime steam is being buffered and dropping out.

Should landlords use WiFi Boosters?

If Wifi boosters are your only option then boosters that you plug into your electric ring main and use on mains electrical circuit to transmit a connection to another Wifi device are the better option. I have found Develo to be the best however not the cheapest. So at least you can provide a WiFi access point in a different area without having to rely on the original WiFi signal.

The other option not normally explored is replacing the router that came from your internet service provider (ISP). Virgin Media’s WIFi router seems to be particularly “PANTS” but ironically it is my preferred ISP due to reliability, support, and fair usage policy. I have found assigning the vendor router into modem mode and adding a new Wifi router more satisfactory and often cheaper than messing about with boosters. Alternatively, you may be able to get the ISP to support your chosen device and not need the ISPs device at all.

I typically use TP-Link routers they are around £30-£40 and a perform well for the price. You can simply change the ISP router into modem mode and then use you TP-link (or another brand) to broadcast out the WiFi. Do make sure you don’t leave your ISPs router emitting WiFi too or you could make the problem worse. There are typically 2 types of routers ADSL and DSL. DSL is typically provided by Virgin but check with your ISP first if you are not sure.
So you have your new router but still having problems.

What is the difference between 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz for WiFi?

Ok, I’m going to do the science bit like the shampoo ads. WiFi uses two different frequencies 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz. Most common is 2.4Ghz with has a longer broadcast range and goes through walls better. It has around 12 channels but actually, adjacent channels don’t work so well. Realistically only 3 channels are far enough away from each other to on interfere with each other.

So for example, if a neighbour has channel 1 then if you were channel 6 or above then you should be fine and not have any RF interference. But what if you have a WiFi dense area with lots of different neighbours all pushing out WiFi?

This is where your problem becomes a little more tricky and you may need to plan your WiFi carefully. One option is the 5Ghz range it is less commonly used and has a lower broadcast range and is not so good penetrating walls but there is less of it out there and you are less likely to clash with neighbours.

I once put WiFi into the Tower of London. If you have ever been there it is in the middle of the city and has some pretty thick walls around it so you would have thought you would be OK. However, we had 23 other WiFi networks broadcasting in the area and decided to move to 5GHz frequency range to avoid channel congestion on 2.4Ghz.

Also, some routers can change the channel themselves when they sense channel collision. Cheaper devices typically don’t do a good job of this and can also make the problems worse so I tend to disable this feature.

Unfortunately not all WiFi devices support 5Ghz namely the consumer devices or older devices so you need to check this if you are planning on using 5Ghz. Most modern routers will support both frequency ranges but you need to check before you buy. If you have both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz you will be able to provide multiple SSIDs (SSIDs are WiFi names) for people to connect to.

MAC filtering

MAC filtering enables an extra level of security for devices to attach to your WiFi. All devices have unique MAC number and can be added to most routers. I would not recommend using this additional security as you have to add each device but acknowledge under certain conditions you might want to.

SSID or WiFi names in HMOs

You can choose to publish or not publish the Service Set Identifier (SSID) and most good WiFi routers offer the option to create multiple SSIDs. This can be useful to create 2.4 and 5Ghz different SSIDs and, if you need to traffic manage congestion, you can actually create policies on each SSID. You might use this if you needed to prioritise available internet bandwidth. I’d suggest keep it simple and publish 2 SSIDs one for 2.4GHz and one for 5GHz. Most customers, if they can’t get on one for any reason will be able to get on the other so you will not be getting a call late in the evening.

Recommendations for WiFi Planning

Do your WiFi planning within the building planning phase of the project. If you think you may need multiple access points then plan that in your refurbishment. Remember it is better to over provide than under-provide.
If you are going to install a single WiFi router, deploy it in the middle of the house so all rooms get good coverage. WiFi works by providing time segments to each WiFi device a bit like sitting in the middle of a room surrounded by different people. They can each offer a small amount of time to ask you a question and receive an answer those people sitting furthest away are not so easily heard and can communicate less in that time segment than a person sitting very close by. So rooms that are situated further away from the router will be able to communicate less and get less bandwidth than those next to the WiFi router even though they may still have a good signal.

So if you are putting WiFi in for a small HMO it is quite likely that putting a router in the middle of the house will provide adequate coverage although depending on what device the ISP send you may end up augmenting that with a better WiFi router.

Take a look at an example of my wifi planning here. This system was put in on a 5Ghz band. If this was changed to  2.4Ghz, you would expect to see at least a 50% uplift in coverage!

Larger HMOs need a little more thought. You can pay for WiFi planning, where a company will come in and plan where your access points are, and look at your obstructions (like walls and compositions) and plan where best to put your WiFi Access Points. Thermally efficient walls particular KingSpan and like products have metal in them and it can be a bit of a nightmare. Similarly, steel work does not help! Just remember metal bad; brick/stone good. However, you can do a lot yourself and avoid this cost by putting the router in the intended spot and moving around the house with a Wifi connected device, such as your smartphone or tablet, assessing the signal strength.

On larger HMOs, you are typically into a multi-access point system. There are lots of companies that produce them BT has just come out with a new system, Ubiquity and Barracuda are all low-cost options. Having looked at the low end of the multi-access point market the BT and Ubiquiti systems are low cost and do both 2.4GHz and 5Ghz. The guiding rules are that the more expensive the access point, the more radios it has in it and the more simultaneous devices and communications it can do. Access points with an AC suffix denote it can run at 1Gb/second but don’t get too hung up on this if your internet speed is less than this.

For very large HMOs there are a lot of corporate grade access points like Cisco Maraki, Rukus and AeroHive that are typically feature rich but are not cheap. I would recommend you seek professional advice at this level. Ideally what you want is a multi-access point system without a centralised on-premise controller. That is to say, you want multiple access points with centralised management which is not dependant on a physical on premise box that controls them.
I am personally settling on AeroHive as they have an unlicensed model that you can then add licences to at a later date should you need to. They have a good range of access points, internal, external, directional, high density and omni directional which means you are as future proof as you can get.
They also have built in Firewall technology so budding hackers can’t hack other WiFi users. AeroHive offer a free WiFi deployment planning tool that you can import your building plans into, define wall compositions and get an accurate deployment plan for both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz before you even buy anything.
If you want advanced features at a later date you can then retrospectively add that via a license key without even going to site. For instance, I could assign traffic policies on users or applications or indeed ban certain applications like TOR browsers and BitTorrent.

WiFi planning on Larger Property Development Projects

I start with a WiFi site survey and use a spectrum analyser. This device lets me know what other WiFi networks are in range their strength and what channels are they are using. I then use a free WiFi planning tool to work out how many access points I need and where.

I then build structured cabling into my project to position these access points. Most modern multiple access point systems take their power over this structured cabling called Power over Ethernet (POE) so it saves having to run separate power spurs to them which tend to fail regularly. Do check the access point power requirements though, as POE has multiple standards too. POE+ denotes it offers a higher power per port often needed on newer access points.

The cabling all comes back to a POE switch which connects to the router. I also build in structure cabling to each access point position and an additional point behind the TV bracket. In each bedroom, I deploy a TV bracket point which has 2 power sockets, an aerial socket, and a structured cabling point. The TV bracket lets you control where the TV sits in the room and can be helpful to reduce noise pollution as well as being a space saving feature.A structure cable point in each room serves

two uses. Firstly, you can use that point to add additional access points at a later date or plug another network device like a smart TV in. Gamers also like cable points as this reduces network latency and makes network games that little bit faster to respond.

I tend to hide the access points in the ceiling voids where possible to avoid tampering. It is always useful if you keep a plan with them marked on so you know where they are at a later date should you need to replace them.
The Garden area is often overlooked but it is a low-cost socialising area which in my view we should provide services to so I use a direction WiFI access point to provide coverage so people can stream music and still use their connection outside.
After the deployment and all the furniture is installed I use a spectrum analyser to check the signal strength in each room for both frequency ranges to make sure the entire house has pervasive 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz frequency coverage.

Good WiFi coverage is the key to happy tenants, so it is imperative that you address these points prior to problems arising to avoid unnecessary expenses and unhappy tenants.

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