How Many Access Points Do I Need?
To achieve optimal performance and cost-efficiency, make sure to figure out how many access points you need before installing your WiFi network.
How many access points (APs) do I need? It’s a question that perplexes IT directors, school administrators, and hospital network specialists alike. Unfortunately, there’s no single “right” answer. The number of access points you need will vary depending on a number of factors, including the layout of your space, your employee headcount, your software and data demands, and the state of your wired network.
What’s more, deploying the ideal number of access points for your circumstances is just one of several factors that will affect your wireless network’s performance. Preliminary research and estimates are great, but for major projects, you will want to bring in a professional to help plan your wireless network. To get yourself started, here are the most important things to consider when determining how many access points you need.
A number of factors relating to your space will impact the effectiveness of your WiFi network — not least of which is the sheer size of it. But in what shape is that square footage distributed? If it’s nice and square, you might be able to put a single AP in the middle of the space and achieve good capacity throughout. However, if the space is L-shaped, T-shaped, or H-shaped, you could end up with dead zones unless you distribute your access points strategically.
Building materials also play an important role in WiFi coverage. Signals can penetrate drywall and wood easier than they can penetrate brick and metal, so if you’re in an office and want your WiFi to get past a bank of elevators or a row if filing cabinets, it’s important to take this into account. If you don’t know exactly what is behind the walls of your space, it’s probably worth it to make a call to your building manager to find out. Better-informed planning will produce better results, period.
It’s no longer enough to ask, “How many users per access point?” Thanks to the rise of BYOD policies, many employees are bringing a laptop, a phone, a tablet, a smartwatch, an e-reader, and maybe an IoT device or two to work. As such, it’s critical to look at the bigger picture when determining how much bandwidth you need — and how many access points it will take to meet this demand.
This begins with tallying the number of your network’s clients (a.k.a. connected devices). As a rule of thumb, imagine that every person on the network will have at least three devices. Then, you need to think about the throughput, or the amount of data passing through the network, required by each of those devices. Again, this will vary significantly depending on which tasks your users are performing — throughput is much higher for video streaming and file downloads than it is for checking email or sending a Slack message.
The bandwidth of your WiFi network will also depend on which protocol you’ve chosen. A traditional 802.11n WiFi network delivers speeds of up to 100mbs, and can typically handle dozens of devices browsing the web and checking email. However, it might only be able to handle a few devices streaming HD video and uploading or downloading dense files simultaneously. The more recent 802.11ac and emerging 802.11ax (WiFi 6) protocols offer more capacity — but only if your wired network is set up to handle it.
It’s Not Just About “How Many Access Points”
While the challenge of pinpointing the precise number of access points you need gets the most attention, it is far from the only important consideration in setting up an effective wireless network.
For instance, where will you place your access points? If you have a huge space but users congregate in only a few areas, it can (and should) affect your network design. Beware of high ceilings — especially in buildings like warehouses — as poor AP placement in these spaces could diminish your signal. In short, don’t end up with the right number of access points in all the wrong places.
Further, which protocol will you use? As mentioned above, different protocols support different maximum levels of throughput. Opt for the higher-end options and you could end up paying too much; choose a cheaper option, and you could find yourself without enough bandwidth (and paying to install more access points down the line).
The oldest protocol that supports multiple simultaneous users (MU-MIMO) is 802.11n (released in 2009), so that is probably the earliest you would ever want to go. Meanwhile, 802.11ax (WiFi 6) is still being rolled out, but is becoming widely available. If you’re doing an installation now, it will likely be worth it in the long run to over-engineer for your current needs. Otherwise, you could end up with an outdated network in just a few years’ time.
That begs a final question: how will you future-proof your network? Once again, the answer has to do with the protocol. Using 802.11ac is a safe bet, but choosing 802.11ax will give you even more leeway to integrate new WiFi technologies. Just be sure to choose a protocol with MU-MIMO — that’s increasingly essential.
Striving for Maximum Performance
While these tips are a good start, having a trained professional perform a wireless site survey is the most effective way to evaluate your unique needs and design your WiFi network for maximum performance.
With three decades of experience in the networking space, Turn-key Technologies (TTI) has the resources and expertise to ensure an enterprise’s networks realize their full potential. From site surveys to network design and implementation to ongoing managed services solutions, TTI brings a full slate of solutions to the table. If your team could use expert support in bringing your IT environment up to speed, get in touch with the WiFi experts at TTI.
By Tony Ridzyowski