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Paul Tablan

By: Paul Tablan on March 12, 2022

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What Is A Wireless Access Point? What Does It Do?

Wireless

Wireless technology is magic, right? It allows us to communicate without clunky wires. We can use it to send a joke to family, connect with work from home, or log in and access documents on our organization’s network from the road. 

While it does provide the technology we need to do all of those things (and more), it isn’t exactly magic. 

I’ve worked in IT for years. As a network engineer at Kelser, I help customers with technology improvements that keep their networks safe, efficient, and available

In my work with customers, I often hear questions like “What is a wireless access point (WAP)? What does it do? How many do I need?” I know wireless technology can be confusing to users.

I understand “IT jargon” and in this article, I’ll explain WAPs and what they do, and explore some of the variables that help technology types (like me) determine how many and what types of access points an organization needs. 

After reading this overview of WAPs, you’ll have a deeper understanding of how wireless technology works, giving you a more confident stance when discussing your technology infrastructure with your IT team. 

What Is A WAP? 

A WAP is a bridge that wireless devices use to access a wired network via radio waves. 

Most organizations use a combination of wired and wireless access. It streamlines getting online and accessing internal and external resources. 

When you plug your laptop computer into a docking station at work, for example, you connect to the hard-wired network.

When you take your laptop off the docking station to take it to a meeting in a conference room, you are using wireless.

The ability to use your laptop wirelessly is facilitated by the communication between a WAP and the laptop’s wireless NIC (network interface card).

How Do WAPs Work?

WAPs broadcast wireless radiofrequency (RF) signals (or radio waves) that devices can use to connect to a particular IT network.  

What Kinds Of Wireless Access Points (WAPs) Are Available? 

There are two types of access points. 

Choosing which type to use essentially comes down to how an organization wants to manage them. WAPs can be managed individually or via controller. Controller-based WAPs provide centralized management (either on-premise or cloud-based) of multiple access points.

Standalone (or Lightweight) WAP

Standalone (or lightweight) WAPs are good for a business that has no remote workforce and one, stand-alone office with fewer than ten employees. Standalone access points are best for situations where one WAP can cover their entire business and for organizations that don’t want to manage multiple access points. 

This option doesn’t scale well, meaning that adding additional access points is difficult and multiplies the workload of the administrator who has to manually manage each WAP.

Controller-based (either on-premise or in the cloud)

These WAPs use a controller to unify the configuration across all access points.

A business can easily add WAPs in a controller-based arrangement and easily manage hundreds or thousands of access points from one management center. The controller also optimizes RF to get the best performance. These can be managed on-site/on-premise or in the cloud. 

On-premise

With an on-premise controller-based WAP, an organization has one or two physical wireless LAN controllers (WLC) on-site.

On-premise controller-based WAPs involve capital and operating expenses, as the organization has to buy hardware and pay for licensing and maintenance support costs.

On-site, physical controller hardware has shorter lifecycles than cloud-based solutions because eventually the hardware will be outdated and no longer supported. At that point, the controller hardware will need to be upgraded or replaced. 

Cloud

Controllers in the cloud are upgraded and managed by the vendor, saving administrative time for the organization’s staff.

WAPs managed in the cloud tunnel back to the internet for configuration and update automatically, all of which is managed by the vendor. There are no hardware expenses with a cloud-based controller since all backups and updates occur in the cloud. Organizations incur only operating expenses related to licenses and support. 

Where Can Wireless Access Points Be Deployed?

They can really be mounted and deployed anywhere, depending on the coverage that is needed. 

In a large manufacturing facility or sports stadium, they may be deployed on poles, from ceilings, or on walls. Very often you might not even know that there’s a WAP nearby because they can be hidden so that they blend in with the environment. 

How Much Do Wireless Access Points Cost? 

Depending on which solution you choose, wireless access points can range from around $100 to $2,000 per access point depending on the features, where you want to use them (indoors or outdoors), and the number of built-in radios and antennas.

What Variables Affect How Many Wireless Access Points You Need?

If you could see radio waves, they’d probably be scattered all around you at all times. Radio waves can propagate and bounce all over the place. They can get absorbed into walls. They can get reflected back.

IT experts do site surveys and designs to maximize the wireless coverage and speeds for clients.

It’s important to consider how the signal can propagate.

It’s kind of like when you drop a pebble into still water in a lake or pond. The waves ripple across and by the end of the outstretched ripples, the water moves less. If there is a wall in there, the water movement stops when it hits the wall. 

Wireless signals are similar. The further out they propagate, the weaker they are. And, if they hit a wall or another object, the signal either gets absorbed by the wall or is very weak coming out of the wall.

Some of the factors considered when determining the number and location of wireless access points are:

  • How many devices are being used in the area? (client density)
  • What building materials are in the space? (sheetrock, brick, concrete)
  • How is the space configured? (open office, cubicles, walls) 
  • Applications being used (i.e. VoIP or video)

How Can You Decide Which WAP Is Right For Your Organization And How Many You Need?

If your organization’s wireless signal is slow and unreliable, it’s probably a sign that you need to add more or upgrade your WAPs.

If you have an IT staff in-house that has the skills to perform a site survey and determine where the gaps are, that’s great. If you don’t, you may want to consider working with an outside firm to perform the analysis. 

There are a number of vendors who provide these services. Kelser has been in business for 40 years and we perform these analyses for customers regularly. If you’d like to know more about how Kelser can help you fill your wireless gaps, fill out the form below and one of our knowledgeable experts will contact you.

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